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Suu Kyi overstretched, says new report

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi stands near a statue of her father at her childhood home in Rangoon, now a museum dedicated to his memory, on 17 July 2016. (Photo: DVB)

A new report released by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) warns that Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government, may be overstretching herself.

The report notes that in addition to her positions as state counsellor and foreign minister, Suu Kyi also heads high-level committees overseeing both the peace process and the volatile situation in Arakan State, creating a “potentially overwhelming workload” for the 71-year-old politician.

Calling her Burma’s “undisputed political leader”, the report also notes that Suu Kyi has to contend with a constitution that enshrines the military’s grip on three key cabinet portfolios and bars her from being president — a situation that “appears to have amplified longstanding tendencies, leading her to concentrate power in her own hands and delegate little.”

Titled “Myanmar’s New Government: Finding Its Feet?”, the report describes the NLD’s first four months in government as setting “a positive tone”, but calls on the party to “find ways to bring peace with ethnic insurgents closer, rebalance relations with China, and overcome deeply ingrained problems in Rakhine [Arakan] State.”

It concludes that the international community can help Burma’s ongoing transition “by providing appropriate support and wise counsel and should not shy away from giving tough advice whenever necessary.”

As recent events recounted in the report suggest, however, it is far from clear how the government and its popular leader would respond to such advice from foreign governments, particularly on issues that remain sensitive, such as the peace process and the ongoing crisis involving the the stateless Rohingya population.

The report details what it calls the “first significant test of the new government” — Suu Kyi’s response to an unauthorised protest in front of the US embassy in Rangoon on 28 April over the use of the term “Rohingya” in a US State Department statement expressing condolences over the fatal sinking of a boat in Arakan State.

Burma’s Foreign Ministry, led by Suu Kyi, responded to the situation by formally asking the embassy to avoid using the term. This was a position in line with a ministry directive telling its staff not to refer to the stateless group, which is denied any legal status in Burma under the country’s controversial 1982 Citizenship Law, as either Rohingya or Bengali — the latter implying that they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. During a join press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Suu Kyi called both terms “emotive”.

Another issue raised in the report is the NLD leader’s tendency to make cabinet picks “with clear priority given to loyalty”, noting that “even a fake-degree scandal failed to unseat ministers in the two key economic portfolios.”

The report also suggests that Suu Kyi’s plan to hold talks with all of Burma’s armed groups — dubbed the 21st Century Panglong Conference — before the end of this month may be too “ambitious”, given the large number of groups involved and the many longstanding issues that need to be discussed.

“Pushing ahead with the conference before the necessary consultations have been held and trust built would be risky,” warns the report.

Many of the armed ethnic groups that attended last week’s summit in the Kachin Independence Organisation-controlled town of Maijayang appeared to share this concern, with some calling for more time to prepare for the summit.