16 September 2019
Once Aung San Suu Kyi falls from grace, there will be no one else in Myanmar apart from the military able to  hold the country together. Photo: Xinhua
Once Aung San Suu Kyi falls from grace, there will be no one else in Myanmar apart from the military able to hold the country together. Photo: Xinhua

Why Aung San Suu Kyi should not head government

Myanmar general election Sunday ended with a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

The ruling party and the military have conceded defeat.

However, even though Suu Kyi’s party now holds an overwhelming majority in parliament, she is not eligible for the presidency, since the country’s constitution bars candidates with foreign spouses or children.

In defiance of the constitutional ban on becoming president herself, Suu Kyi publicly stated after the election that she would be “above the president” and become the actual head of government once her party takes power.

If she meant what she said, I don’t think it would be a good idea.

As far as Suu Kyi is concerned, her unparalleled popularity among Myanmar’s people mostly comes from her position as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and her image as the “goddess of democracy”, largely shaped by the western media over the years.

However, once she takes part in the day-to-day running of the administration, it might be inevitable that she will get entangled in the power struggles among different political factions or may be forced to take a tough stance on ethnic separatism.

If that happens, she might risk losing her mojo in the eyes of her people and the international community.

If her mojo evaporates, so does her popularity.

As Myanmar is undergoing rapid democratization, it will face many challenges, foreign and domestic, in the days ahead.

To guide the country through turbulent times, Myanmar may need a national symbol, or an impartial “figurehead” who has superior status over all vested interests, to unify its people and act as a “super arbitrator” to help settle disputes among different political factions, as well as to impose moral pressure on the administration when it is acting against public opinion.

Given her world-renowned image as a selfless freedom fighter, Suu Kyi is an indisputable choice for this particular position.

In fact “figureheads” don’t just exist in constitutional monarchies.

For example, after the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had been toppled by the United States in 2002, its former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who had been overthrown and gone into exile during the invasion by the Soviet Union in the 1970’s, was invited by Washington to return to Kabul and serve as a spiritual leader to unify all the tribes.

Given the title of “Founding Father” with no executive power, Shah didn’t do a very good job in unifying his people, but at least he was able to fufill the role as a “buffer figure” among the different political factions in the war-torn country.

In fact, Afghanistan could have been spared much of the chaos during its general election last year if he were still alive then.

As the daughter of General Aung San, the true founding father of modern Myanmar, Suu Kyi is perfectly eligible for the title of “Founding Mother” of the country and can continue to exert her political influence in that impartial position while keeping her reputation unstained.

If the NLD gets corrupted by power in the future, she can even call upon the Myanmar people to start another revolution.

However, if Suu Kyi is running the government herself, chances are she might be corrupted by power, too.

Once she falls from grace, there will probably be no one else in Myanmar apart from the military able to hold the country together, leading to the resurrection of military dictatorship.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 11.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal