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Myanmar's new reality without Aung San Suu Kyi

Tommy Walker
September 22, 2023

Aung San Suu Kyi is, for many, the face of the democracy movement in Myanmar. But some are looking beyond the civilian leader.

A banner featuring Aung San Suu Kyi is displayed as protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in front of the National League for Democracy (NLD) office in Yangon
While Aung San Suu Kyi maintains strong support from her followers, others are looking for a new face for Myanmar's pro-democracy movementImage: AFP

Aung San Suu Kyi has been fighting for democracy in Myanmar for over three decades. She rose to political prominence during the 8888 uprising — named for the date it took place, August 8, 1988 — and for many she has been the beacon of hope that the country will one day become a true democracy.

But at 78 years old, Suu Kyi now finds herself behind bars following the 2021 military coup, and her family says she is in poor health.

Some in the pro-democracy movement are thus preparing for a Myanmar after Suu Kyi.

Sentenced to three decades in prison

Suu Kyi has rarely been seen during her detention, which started more than two-and-a-half years ago. She was sentenced to 33 years in prison on a variety of charges imposed by the junta, although six years were removed following a partial pardon. Experts and observers say her charges and sentencing, which included electoral fraud and corruption, were politically motivated.

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Sources close to Suu Kyi say she has chronic gum disease, which in recent weeks has gotten worse, and that she also suffers from low blood pressure. Suu Kyi's son, Kim Aris, says his mother has been vomiting, suffers from dizziness, and is being denied access to recommended health care.

A junta spokesman says Suu Kyi's poor health is a rumor and that she receives regular check-ups from doctors while in prison.

David Scott Mathieson, a Myanmar analyst in Thailand, says Myanmar must face a new reality without Suu Kyi.

"Despite genuine concern over her reportedly deteriorating health, it's obvious that Myanmar is now in a post-Aung San Suu Kyi reality. One can wallow in the unfairness of this, as it was the coup hastening an almost inevitable decline of her influence or lean into the reality that a new generation of political thought and action is making Suu Kyi irrelevant," Mathieson said.

Suu Kyi's Myanmar 

After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her fight for democracy in Myanmar, Suu Kyi became a worldwide name. Her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), emerged from Myanmar's 1988 democracy uprising against military rule and after 15 years under house arrest Suu Kyi was released, eventually leading her party to win Myanmar's general elections in 2015 and 2020.

Throughout her political career, she has served as Myanmar's State Councillor and as a Minister of Foreign Affairs, while she is seen as a democratic icon by many in Myanmar and still retains strong support.

But Suu Kyi's international reputation took a major hit after she was heavily criticized for her denial of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar in 2015.

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Mathieson says her influence and legacy were already waning prior to her recent imprisonment.

"Her political legacy has been burned beyond repair, and she is the primary agent of that self-immolation. This includes not just her denial of the atrocities against the Rohingya and choosing inexplicably to defend Myanmar at The Hague, but also her manifold failings as a political leader," Mathieson told DW.

"She presided over a cult of personality where subservience was rewarded, and expertise devalued over loyalty," he added. "She didn't just fail to make alliances with other political parties, civil society and armed insurgents in a broad front against the military, she actively made enemies and froze out potential allies."

The dominance of Suu Kyi's NLD

However, Aung Thu Nyein, a political analyst from Myanmar, says the party doesn't exist without its leader.

"The NLD is nothing without Aung San Suu Kyi. Nobody, no Central Committee, or no Executive Committee, can make a decision for the NLD's fate. But if she wants to continue the party, it will continue. She still maintains a large crowd of followers and worshippers," he said.

Prior to the 2021 coup, Suu Kyi's party had won a landslide in the general elections in November 2020, but the junta claimed electoral fraud had occurred.

The junta waged a brutal crackdown against any opposition that has sunk the country into an ongoing conflict. Those fighting the junta call it a revolution, others see it as a civil war. Thousands have been killed and at least 1 million people have been displaced, according to monitoring groups.

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The aftermath of the coup has also seen Myanmar politicians and regional leaders form the National Unity Government (NUG), insisting they are the legitimate government that leads the country.

But Aung Thu Nyein is uncertain if anyone could replace Suu Kyi and her influence at this time.

"I don't see any replacement of leadership after her. The people leading in the NUG are similarly just juniors [compared] to her," he said.

Beyond Suu Kyi

Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a prominent political activist in Myanmar, who was once dubbed as the "the new Aung San Suu Kyi," says her leadership today is not essential.

"Considering that Myanmar's 2021 Spring revolution began and persisted without her leadership, it becomes clear that our commitment to the country extends beyond any personal cult," she told DW.

"She fulfilled her role but did not achieve success, leaving subsequent generations with valuable lessons and ongoing challenges. To ensure our revolution's success, we must unite diverse ethnic groups in collective leadership, a departure from the past. Myanmar's struggle includes fighting the idea that only a select political elite can determine our fate," she added.

The view that Myanmar's struggles must be solved by a select few with a "born-to-rule mindset" is generating frustration among the younger generation, Mathieson says.

They understand that the struggle for freedom is not just about liberating Suu Kyi from prison, but about freeing the whole country from the grip of the military and permanently removing them from politics.

Mathieson says if Suu Kyi is ever released, it is unlikely to have the same effect as it did when she was released from house arrest in the past. 

"Does Suu Kyi have a place in that 'New Burma?' She may harbor expectations of future leadership," Mathieson says. "If released, rather than being a galvanizing figure, she could be an agent of fragmentation. It could turn the revolution against her if she tried to."

Edited by: Alex Berry