Aung San Suu Kyi, then the leader of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement, greets supporters in Monywa, November 2012. 
Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Since April 2016, when the international human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi became the first democratic leader of Myanmar, activists, journalists, and policymakers around the world have been expressing shock and disappointment at her performance. In addition to raising questions about her leadership on economic and political reforms, which she has largely failed to deliver on, her critics have charged her with turning a blind eye to crimes against humanity committed by the country’s military against the Muslim Rohingya minority. Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, Keith Harper, accused Aung San Suu Kyi of failing to use her stature to speak up against the atrocities. Others have been more direct—an April headline in The Intercept called her an “apologist for genocide against Muslims.”

Such harsh judgments on Aung San Suu Kyi’s integrity and competence have less to do with her leadership and more to do with the undue expectations the international community has placed on her. Likewise, critics often overemphasize the role of Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal traits while minimizing the structural and situational factors that have influenced her decisions. Placed in the context of the country’s misunderstood political, historical, and institutional environment, Aung San Suu Kyi is neither the savior she was once assumed to be nor the villain of today’s caricatures.

A TOUGH JOB

In November 2015, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party stormed to power in Myanmar’s first free elections after decades of military rule. It was indeed a moment to celebrate. But the international media, ignoring the long process of state-building and democratization that still lay ahead, sold the NLD’s victory as the final act in a simplistic and overly optimistic narrative of Myanmar’s progress. A January 2016 headline in Time, for instance, celebrated the “Dawning of a New Democratic Era” in Myanmar. A UN video declared simply,  “Democracy Wins.” 

After coming into office, Aung San Suu Kyi adopted a peace-first approach. She immediately released dozens of political prisoners and began to pursue cease-fire talks with the nation’s myriad of ethnic militant groups. But the peace process remains short on meaningful dialogue, with some conflicts even intensifying, while military-era freedom of speech restrictions remain in place. On the economic front, crippling U.S. sanctions have been lifted, and Myanmar passed a new investment law designed to open its economy. Yet there are few signs of genuine ground-level development. Foreign direct investment has fallen sharply, corruption remains pervasive, and the NLD’s plans for the economy remain vague.

Aung San Suu Kyi is neither the savior she was once assumed to be nor the villain of today’s caricatures.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s record is thus disappointing. But she would always have been hampered by some harsh realities. First, Myanmar is a nation with severe economic inequality, one of the world’s longest-running civil wars, and deep-seated ethnic, religious, and geographic divides, with a central government that has long struggled to control the ethnic minority regions on the periphery. Furthermore, most of the society’s schisms are along ethnic and religious lines, which cuts against democratic development and effective peace building. Even in the best of circumstances, that is, the country is divided and difficult to govern.

Second, in addition to its social divisions, Myanmar has poorly functioning institutions and an under-skilled and corrupt bureaucracy. These limitations have made it difficult for the country’s new leader to make policy, let alone deliver on her campaign promises to bring economic development to the country, one of Asia’s poorest. And to overcome Myanmar’s incapacity for decentralized decision-making. Aung San Suu Kyi has taken on extra roles, such as that of foreign minister, in addition to her principal role as state counselor—a role designed around constitutional restrictions barring her from being president. This has both overburdened her and led to accusations of her growing authoritarianism. Such institutional dysfunction goes a long way in explaining the NLD’s policy inertia.

Third and equally important, Myanmar's military, the Tatmadaw, still retains significant power. The constitution, drafted in 2008, before the democratic transition, reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military and grants it control of the important ministries of home affairs, borders, and defense, meaning that the country’s armed forces can act independently of its elected leader. Constitutional reforms, meanwhile, remain blocked by a requirement that amendments pass with a 75 percent majority in parliament, giving effective veto power to the military. Hopes for reducing the military’s stranglehold were further set back in January, when the NLD adviser tasked with designing a new constitution, the prominent Muslim lawyer U Ko Ni, was shot dead under suspicious circumstances. Ex-military officers were named as suspects in the inquiry.

Aung San Suu Kyi's hold on power—and her ability to pursue her own political priorities—is tenuous. It depends on her ability to appease powerful domestic interest groups, including the military, the country’s majority Buddhist Bamar ethnic group, and the influential Buddhist priesthood. Nationalistic, Islamophobic, and anti-minority sentiment is prevalent among all three groups, making any attempt to address the humanitarian crisis among the Rohingya a far more volatile task than most outsiders appreciate. In fact, previous episodes of deadly communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims have been sparked by little more than social media-led rumors and incitement.

A man from the majority-Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group walks away from a burning hut following clashes between Rakhine and Rohingya in Sittwe, Myanmar, June 2012. 
Reuters

A PROBLEM FROM HELL

Aung San Suu Kyi’s passivity over the Rohingya, more than anything else, has earned her criticism from the international community. The Rohingya, who have been subjected to decades of state repression in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, are widely considered to be one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. In recent months their situation has been deteriorating: in October, nine police officers were murdered, allegedly by Rohingya militants. The military crackdown that followed has led to reports of mass killing, rape, and other crimes against humanity, and over 70,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar.

With no control over the military’s operations and a fervently nationalist population, particularly in Rakhine, Aung San Suu Kyi has been forced to walk a tightrope. She has attempted to gently appease all parties, acknowledging the plight of the Rohingya and local Buddhists while also condemning the attacks on the military. She has set up a special commission, led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to investigate the matter. Indeed, her administration welcomed the suggestions of the commission’s interim report, which included improving media and humanitarian access to Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live, a path to citizenship for the Rohingya (Myanmar currently considers them to be foreigners), and an “independent and impartial” investigation into the military crackdown. And since the report, her government has granted international aid workers greater access to the region. She has nonetheless avoided speaking about the conflict in public, continued to limit international media visits to Rakhine State, and dissociated herself from a UN-led fact-finding mission to the affected area on the grounds that it would be divisive.

These half-measures have angered many outside observers, who have called for Aung San Suu Kyi to definitively speak out against the military and grant foreign media and aid workers full access to Rakhine. It would be unwise, however, for her to condemn or alienate the military absent any real political or institutional control over it. Myanmar is only a few years removed from a military dictatorship, and one coup is enough to turn it back into one. Burmese political history is littered with hostile takeovers, and as a longtime democracy activist who witnessed the atrocities of the past—including the state-led massacre of thousands of anti-government protestors in 1988—Aung San Suu Kyi knows the importance of preserving even an imperfect civilian share in power.

These are not merely a cynical calculations: Aung San Suu Kyi needs the army on her side in order to pursue peace talks with minority ethnic groups (including the Rohingya) that have clashed with Myanmar’s central government for decades. In doing so, she hopes to revive the vision of her father, the independence hero Aung San, of a unified yet decentralized nation that would grant autonomy to country’s minorities. The military, which is continuously engaged in territorial skirmishes with borderland militants, is reticent over this policy. Not only would it stand to lose profits it currently derives from the extraction and trade of raw materials in the resource-rich borderlands but it is politically mistrustful of the minority ethnic groups, and would prefer a centralized state based on Bamar-Buddhist ethnonationalism. Alienating the military over Rakhine State would risk stifling peace talks and constitutional reform, both of which require its cooperation. Likewise, offering overt concessions to the Rohingya could energizethe country’s nationalistic majority, pushing them to support the military or more uncompromising and violent nativist groups.

THEORY OF THE SECOND BEST

It is true that Aung San Suu Kyi's administration has made errors, and the world should not blindly accept the despicable situation that the Rohingya—and to a lesser extent, Myanmar’s other ethnic minorities—find themselves in. But observers should adopt a more nuanced outlook. Not only does incessant and poorly contextualized condemnation risk undermining Aung San Suu Kyi’s rule—the country’s greatest hope for democracy in decades—it also detracts from the responsibility of the military, which bears most of the blame for the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State. The warped nature of international opinion on this topic was underscored in late April, when Senior General Minh Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military, visited Austria and Germany, where he enjoyed a warm reception. By contrast, Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent trip to Europe met with protests

Instead of pushing overly optimistic expectations for peace and democracy in Myanmar and then criticizing Aung San Suu Kyi for falling short, international commentators should recognize that the country is in a precarious situation. The military remains kingmaker, and at any rate it was never plausible that a leader could remedy decades of authoritarian rule, ethnic conflict, and underdevelopment in a single year. For any democratic-minded government in Myanmar, reform will be a continuing struggle. 

Those who wish to support Myanmar’s democratization should thus adjust their expectations. Aung San Suu Kyi, despite her flaws, has dedicated her entire life to democracy and liberal values, and after spending 15 years under house arrest for her activism, she knows that reforming her country will be a long-term fight. And she is fighting almost alone and under great constraints. International organizations, activists, and the media should support this effort by putting pressure on Myanmar’s military where appropriate while trying to avoid enflaming the situation in the pursuit of unrealistic short-term aims.