Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the U.N. on Sept. 21, in New York City. Suu Kyi has to deal with both the hopes of Myanmar's people and the reality that the country's military retains considerable power. (Photo by AFP)
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There were high hopes among the people of Myanmar, especially minority ethnic groups, when the country's leader Aung San Suu Kyi convened the 21st Century Panglong peace conference in late August in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, pledging to bring an end to decades-long civil wars.
Sadly since then a military offensive — part of a four-year-long conflict — has been intensifying in Kachin State including air strikes and artillery fire. Conflict has again also taken hold, as it does spasmodically, in Shan State sending thousand's scurrying for safety.
But far worse than the intensifying of these long-running conflicts has been the attack by the military on the Rohingya minority in western Rakhine State and it is here, particularly, that Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) is starting to flail.
A prominent Kachin politician said ordinary people thought that the military would step up its offensive after the peace conference, as an effort on pressuring ethnic armed groups who are yet to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement — partially concluded by the previous military government.
All stakeholders, including the military and ethnic armed groups, have acknowledged that fighting — which has bedeviled Myanmar for almost 70 years — is not the answer for a durable peace.
During the Panglong conference, military chief Min Aung Hlaing gave reassurances that the armed forces wanted peace and would support the new civilian government which prioritized bringing about such a goal.
But actions speak louder than words.
The continuation of military offensives against ethnic armed groups in Kachin and Shan states — as well as the military led attacks in Rakhine — are derailing the peace process and undermining the Panglong conference.
One Kachin politician said during the conference that Suu Kyi's biggest challenge is to prevail in her influence over the military to end fighting in ethnic areas.
So far she has made little progress.
Myanmar formally ended more than five decades of harsh military rule with the NLD's victory in last November's election but overly high expectations have proven unrealistic.
A key reason is that the military remains a dominant force in Myanmar's transition to democracy, with 25 percent of unelected military representatives being allocated by a 2008 Constitution to every parliament in the nation. The military also controls the key ministries of Defense, Border and Home Affairs.
And this is the NLD's problem — the new civilian government that officially became Myanmar's first democratically elected government in April does not have full control to end the country's civil wars as the military is beyond the control of the government.
Rather than speaking out, Suu Kyi has fallen silent. She has failed to condemn the military offensives against ethnic armed groups. She is a leader who is failing to lead and it is arguable that her continuing silence is seeing her moral suasion fading.
"Where is Aung San Suu Kyi?" read placards held by thousands of protesters in Kachin State recently as they demanded an end to fighting in ethnic areas. It's a question being asked, increasingly, particularly with the fast emerging crisis in Rakhine where the military is razing villages, according to satellite images.
Supporters argue that Suu Kyi, however, has had to walk a delicate line between the high expectations of Myanmar's people and the reality that the military still plays a major role in the peace process.
"She has had to compromise with the military so she can't speak out on the Kachin issue," Myanmar's Cardinal Charles Maung Bo told ucanews.com.
It is a daunting challenge for her to reconcile ethnic armed groups who have long called for equality, self-autonomy and a federal system, and the military that clings to the 2008 Constitution with its own silence on ethnic rights and self-determination.
The people of Myanmar have suffered from civil wars for more than five decades and many have a true desire for peace that they want to leave to future generations as a legacy.
Suu Kyi, daughter of Myanmar independence hero General Aung San who initiated a Panglong agreement in 1947, has the support of the international community.
For the military that oppressed the people for years, the current political scenario is an opportunity to gain more trust from the people of Myanmar and to be a professional institution by supporting peace and working hand in hand with the NLD.
Nice words, smiling faces and shaking hands with ethnic armed groups in the peace talks are not enough. The military really needs to put words into action by ending its offensives against ethnic armed groups and return to the negotiating table.
But it is the Rohingya issue that is shaping quickly as the NLDs' most immediate test. Suu Kyi still, as do other senior leaders of the party, insists on calling the Rohingya "Bengalis" effectively denying them their basic right of self-determination. She has described the military's actions as being within "the rule of law."
Right now, as far as Rakhine is concerned, in failing the Rohingya, she is failing all minorities in Myanmar — a country with about 135 different ethnic groups.
It was always going to be a long and hard road to transform Myanmar and those hard realities are now setting in a year after the NLD's huge election win.
Published Nov. 24, 2016