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Aung San Suu Kyi drops the ball on rule of law

Jailing reporters is the symptom; Myanmar's legal system is the illness and its democracy can't survive without a systematic fix

Aung San Suu Kyi drops the ball on rule of law

This combo shows Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo (left) and Wa Lone being escorted by police after being sentenced to seven years in jail in Yangon on Sept. 3. They were convicted of breaching Myanmar's Official Secrets Act during their reporting of the Rohingya crisis in a case that has drawn outrage as an attack on media freedom. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

In Myanmar and across the Western world, there is outrage at the jailing of two local Reuters journalists in Myanmar for seven years using antiquated colonial-era laws around state secrets — one of which was, bizarrely, a download of Pope Francis' schedule for his visit last year.

Anger and dismay have been squarely focused on the country's de facto leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and piles further opprobrium on top of her for her misbegotten reaction to the Rohingya crisis.

Yet the failure of the woman widely referred to as The Lady is symptomatic of both the invidious constitutional bind that hampers her National League for Democracy (NLD) government and her wrong-headed policy priorities and mismanagement on something of an epic scale.

In this case particularly, this has crucially included almost no efforts to reform the judiciary and improve the rule of law — the cornerstone of any functioning democracy — or the regulatory institutions. This shows an almost complete lack of understanding about what democracy really is, or maybe she has forgotten.

Time and time again in the developing world, the West has looked on aghast as the promising green shoots of democracy have been extinguished, if we accept the commonly used definition of democracy as having free and fair elections in electorates that have not been deliberately gerrymandered. Nowhere has this been clearer than in Southeast and South Asia.

In the past five years, we have seen the following:

  • An election in Bangladesh in 2014 that the opposition BNP opted to boycott after the ruling Awami League refused to reintroduce a nonpartisan caretaker government to oversee the polls, leading to an effective Awami League dictatorship that resulted in the BNPs organizational collapse and suppression of party leaders including BNP chief Khaleda Zia.
  • In 2014, following manufactured street protests by a former deputy prime minister, Thailand's military turfed out the government of Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party which, under various names, had won the previous four elections. Thailand is governed by the 12th military junta since it emerged from absolute monarchy in 1932. That's a sad track record and an indication of the almost complete lack of any institutional support for democracy.
  • In the Philippines, with its history of corrupt and shaky presidents since the Marcos dictatorship ended in 1986, we have seen President Rodrigo Duterte, elected in 2015, thumb his nose at the rule of law, supporting his rule with thousands of extrajudicial killings as well as removing the chief justice.
  • In Cambodia, a very close election in 2013 saw the region's longest ruler, former Khmer Rouge senior player Hun Sen, chip away at the nascent competitive parliament by deciding to dissolve the opposition. His Cambodian People's Party won every seat in the July 2018 election.
  • In Malaysia, former PM Najib Razak shifted electoral boundaries so egregiously that rural voters were handed the power of three urban votes in an ultimately vain attempt to retain power, leaving successor Mahathir Mohamad with years of work to bring the country back to some semblance of fairness.

Singapore is a one-party state, Brunei is an absolute monarchy, Vietnam and Laos are communist dictatorships, leaving only Indonesia (and yes, hopefully Malaysia) as the only real democracy in ASEAN right now.

Alongside this string of repression has come the growing censorship of the media across the region. The so-called fourth estate is an essential element of democracy if it is allowed to operate fairly and freely to expose the failings of governments as well as the militaries who are so powerful in the region.

And so to Myanmar, whose people spoke so loudly and strongly for change, overwhelmingly voting for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in the November 2015 elections. But the vote disguised the real state of the play in a country that has been ruled by the military since its 1962 coup d'etat.

Like her or not, Suu Kyi has been very clear for the past decade that, to paraphrase The Lady herself, she is "not a human rights agency but a politician." Many outside the country have spent the past 12 months switching sides as the final chapter in the latest Rohingya exodus/tragedy, begun in 2012, has played out.

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Locked up for so long, Suu Kyi apparently became addicted to gestures. Her sweeping election victory has seen the NLD forced to share power with a military that is guaranteed 25 percent of all parliamentary seats, making constitutional change impossible.

Her big gesture focus since gaining power has been to attempt to complete the unfinished business of the Panlong Peace Conference that her father started in 1947 just before his assassination. Its ultimate aim, beyond peace with Myanmar's seven ethnic-minority states, was to create a federated model for the country.

But the military continues to thwart that with the ongoing civil war in Christian-majority Kachin State and the ongoing horror of the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State. Only this year, some hostilities have restarted with the well-organized Karen militias.

All the while, Suu Kyi appears to have backpedaled on her commitment to the rule of law. Not long ago, this was such a central tenant of her planned program she sat as head of the parliament's Rule of Law Committee form the time she entered the legislature in 2012 until winning the 2015 election.

Her supporters on this issue appear to have melted away and she has dropped the ball in a such big way. She appointed a military veteran as attorney general only last year and she is surrounded by head-nodding and substandard advisers. People inside the country and well versed in legal matters now mutter that things were better under her military predecessor, President Thein Sein.

Indeed, Thein Sein, in laying out his vision for Myanmar's emergence from darkness, was insistent that the country could not progress without systematic improvement of the rule of law.

The decision to jail Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for doing their jobs has shown that Myanmar's legal system is the key stumbling block for any lasting, significant improvements for the country.

In not just failing to support the two Reuters journalists but in her constant anti-media narrative, adopting military jargon describing them as traitors, Suu Kyi has conveniently forgotten that it was decades-long support from Western media that was critical to her ultimate electoral vindication for standing strong against the generals.

Suu Kyi must make sure that President Win Mynt pardons these young men as soon as possible and then start getting her hands dirty, doing the heavy lifting on overhauling two fundamental building blocks of any real democracy: the legal system and press freedom.

This article was first published 4.9.2018.

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