Under Pressure: Aung San Suu Kyi Source: Yonhap/Yonhap News Agency/PA Images

How Aung San Suu Kyi betrayed the world's hopes

The Myanmar leader has shown a fatal combination of arrogance and strategic cluelessness. Yet her people still love her
January 27, 2020

In 2016, the year Aung San Suu Kyi came to power, Burma—or Myanmar as it is usually now known—“was on Fodor Guides’ list of the world’s hottest destinations,” Thant Myint-U writes. “By 2018 it was on Fodor’s list of the top 10 places to avoid.”

Why did it go so bad so quickly? When Suu Kyi had been released from detention in 2010, all the main players involved in Myanmar were desperate for change. The military strongman leader Than Shwe had scheduled his retirement and was determined to quit with a stable settlement in place. Suu Kyi, approaching 70, was running out of time. President Obama was hungry for a big foreign policy success. And so Suu Kyi was persuaded to enter politics under a constitution that perpetuated army dominance.

When free elections were held, Suu Kyi’s party won power by a landslide. The constitution barred her from being president but as “state counsellor” she wielded comparable power. And as Thant’s scrupulous and well-sourced account explains, she bears much of the blame for Myanmar’s subsequent betrayal of the world’s hopes. The army launched an all-out assault on the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in the country’s west, which resulted in more than 700,000 fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh. Suu Kyi refused to condemn the army action. Her weaknesses were already evident: a refusal to discuss or delegate, an inability to take constructive initiatives, a preoccupation with trivialities. But the challenges of power magnified them all.

On coming to power she discarded advisers—including Thant—who had done useful work and turned instead to former officials close to Tony Blair, infuriating the army and showing a fatal combination of arrogance and strategic cluelessness. Yet the people still love her and she is set to keep power. And the innocent, Rohingya in particular, continue to suffer.

The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century by Thant Myint-U (Atlantic, £18.99)