The Lady in the broken mirror: the politics of identity in Myanmar

Global icon Aung San Suu Kyi faces the everyday challenges of governing a nation whose ethnic tensions threaten to tear it apart.

Sergio Rodriguez Prieto
19 December 2016

A woman wears a mask of Aung San Suu Kyi during a rally in Jakarta against the persecution of Rohingya. (Dita Alangkara; AP/PA)

A woman wears a mask of Aung San Suu Kyi during a rally in Jakarta against the persecution of Rohingya. (Dita Alangkara; AP/PA)I

New democracies in developing countries often face great expectations, which elected rulers can hardly fulfil by their own means. Take the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, a figure with unquestionable moral authority and the sort of charisma that is increasingly rare in the international arena. Despite her well-earned reputation and the complexity of her mission, one year after the landslide victory of her party, the National League for Democracy, she is starting to face growing criticism both at home and abroad."

Eager to attract funding for the huge infrastructure projects that the country needs after almost five decades of stagnation, she is being accused of passing a Foreign Investment Law that leaves domestic stakeholders unprotected and could worsen the already acute problem of land-grabbing. The projects themselves – dams, roads or power plants – will have a major impact on rural areas and are thus subject to strong contestation by the affected populations. Moreover, Suu Kyi's lack of experience in managing state affairs, mirrored by most of her team – mainly composed of former activists with long periods in exile or in jail – partially explains the overall feeling of disorientation that looms over the country. She is already being accused of micromanaging, of not being gender sensitive – she’s the only woman to hold a ministerial portfolio – and of ruling her party with an iron fist. On top of that, human right groups blame her for not taking a stronger stance on ethnic problems, questioning the way she has handled the recurring outbursts of sectarian violence against the Muslim minority in Rakhine State, which have produced a humanitarian crisis on the border with Bangladesh. Suu Kyi is not the one fuelling the attacks, but she’s supposedly not doing enough to prevent them or to assist the victims, whose ethnicity has yet to be officially recognised.

Aren’t we asking too much? As Yanghee Lee, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, observes in her latest report, the new government faces “the challenges of trying to enhance democratic governance within an institutional framework that impedes the development of democratic practices and respect for human rights”. Indeed, as a result of the current constitution, approved under military rule, the army still holds a 25% of the seats in the Lower House and keeps control of three key ministries: home affairs, defence, and border affairs. Just a few months before the elections that brought the NLD to power, the military controlled parliament adopted four “Race and Religion Protection Laws” to the quiet delight of the Buddhist clergy or Shanga.

This might explain why during her last visit to Washington the Lady mentioned the “communal strife and tensions within the Rakhine State” but avoided explicitly mentioning the “Rohingya” as such, aware of the impact that this recognition in the Oval Office would have back home. Disorienting as it may seem, her way of navigating between internal constraints and external pressure is bearing its fruits. No one can know at this point what the policies of the new elected president of the US will look like, but the Obama administration has proved to be strongly supportive, recently lifting the crippling sanctions that prevented the Burmese economy from taking off. Already in 2013 the European Union included Myanmar in the trading scheme known as “Everything but Arms”, allowing duty and quota-free access to the single market, while actively engaging in the peace process and signing the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement as the only western international observer. In a Joint Communication from last June, the EU itself states that it has “a big stake in the success of the on-going transition and an interest in helping to ensure its completion”. Of course, this endorsement is not only about encouraging democracy: from a geopolitical standpoint, it also represents a clear move to counter Chinese interests in an almost virgin market and a huge pool of natural resources.For many romantic observers in search of global justice, the appearance of an almost prophetic figure in one of the most punished spots on the planet is so appealing, so rich in moral beauty, that it has an almost magical connotation, as if her shining aura could conceal her human flaws and limitations

This is what makes Myanmar such an interesting case; that it somehow encapsulates the paradoxes and outright contradictions of politics in the new millennium. The intrinsic complexities of any transition to democracy are worsened by the difficulties of opening-up a country that has been isolated for almost five decades. How to revitalise such a precarious economy without the country straining under the centrifugal forces of free-trade globalisation? Ideally – or dangerously – placed between China and India; blessed – or doomed – by abundant natural resources; and propelled – or threatened – by the wasted potential of its young workforce, Myanmar stands in one of those critical junctures that will determine its future and give shape to the whole region. But instead of accepting the complexity of its situation, we tend to fall into our usual naïvete when appraising – and morally judging – international affairs. In a way, there is such an urge to build a country narrative upon easily recognisable features and rapidly identifiable values that we end up missing the big picture. For many romantic observers in search of global justice, the appearance of an almost prophetic figure in one of the most punished spots in the planet is so appealing, so rich in moral beauty, that it has an almost magical connotation, as if the shining aura of Suu Kyi could conceal her human flaws and limitations. No doubt that the story of a country moving from military rule to democracy under the guidance of a heroic recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize makes for the perfect Hollywood screenplay. But the problem with this storyline is that it misses a key fact, namely that the country as such is under permanent threat of falling apart.


The first thing to catch the traveller’s attention upon landing in Rangoon – the former capital now rebaptised as Yangon – is the diversity of facial features among the local population; the almond shape of the eyes takes different degrees of openness and inclination, just as the colour of the skin, stretching from amber tones to dark brown in a continuum that makes it almost impossible to set clear and unmistakable categories. If the traveller in question happens to be coming from Europe, she will probably have stopped over in Dubai’s airport, the most important hub in the Arabian Peninsula and a textbook example of what the French anthropologist Marc Augé termed as the “non-lieux”. Every human race seems to be represented in that strange ecosystem of Starbucks, McDonalds and duty-free shops, an image of racial brotherhood under the auspices of free trade that would certainly be uplifting if it weren’t for the underlying exploitation and its impact on the planet. But it is precisely against this homogenizing background that the contrast among races becomes even more vivid; one can play spot-the-difference and easily proceed to classify, categorise and define most of the passengers according to the varied prejudices and misconceptions at hand.

The diversity that one meets in Yangon is of another kind. For an untrained eye it is almost impossible to distinguish amongst the 135 ethnic groups that have been officially recognised by the Constitution and which are broken down into eight “major national ethnic races”. Well-intentioned Westerners will almost automatically think of this diversity as a cultural patrimony worth defending in times of frenzied globalisation. But it is not difficult to understand the challenge that this atomisation of the constituency represents for any democratic transition. Indeed, the biggest problem confronting Myanmar is that of national identity, the cornerstone of any political community in which the objective elements of the state – territory, population and the monopoly of force – meet the more subjective and uncertain “feeling of belonging”.

Cosmopolitan and educated urban-dwellers often fail to understand the appeal of nationalism, a crude and simplistic approach towards identity. But in a country where 70% of the population still lives in rural areas and less than one in three households has access to electricity many people may prove receptive to exactly that sort of siren song. And at this stage of our collective history we should be well aware of how incendiary the cocktail of tribalism and nationalism can get. So the real challenge that Suu Yyi and her colleagues from the NLD party are facing is the construction of a democratic collective identity in a nation with a tradition of top-down power. At this point it needs to be said that, despite the automatic reflex of blaming colonialism, this situation is not exclusively the result of British rule. A quick review of Burmese history shows that power has always been imposed by the ethnic majority, the Bama or Myanmar, which etymologically stands for “the men that came on horses” from the slopes of the Himalayas. In a series of military campaigns, they took over the mosaic of Buddhist city-states that had been mushrooming in the central plane, expanding their multi-ethnic domain to the fertile lands of the Irrawaddy Delta. Ever since, religion has been at the core of the Burmese identity, with an estimated 89% of the population being Buddhists. Although the 2008 Constitution makes room for the other religious minorities – Christian, Muslims, Hindus and Animists – by giving every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion” (article 34), it also “recognizes (the) special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union” (article 364).Even the Lady undertook the task of effectively translating Buddhist concepts into democracy through her book “Freedom from Fear”

It would thus be a mistake to understate the role that the Buddhist Shanga plays in civil society by providing education and health services to the population; but even more important is its impact in shaping national political identity. Not incidentally U Nu, the first Prime Minister of Burma after the Second World War, was a devout statesman who shaped his acts to the teachings of the Buddha and instated the lunar calendar so that the population could observe the Uposatha or Buddhist Sabbath. Even the Lady undertook the task of effectively translating Buddhist concepts into democracy through her book “Freedom from Fear”, and explicitly conducts herself after the Buddhist virtues, something that shouldn’t come as a surprise if one considers the interdependence between the secular and the sacred in Buddhist cosmogony. This is, after all, the philosophy lying behind the impressive image of the Saffron monks demonstrating in the streets of Yangon, but also behind the emergence of such a figure as Ashin Whiratu, herald of the new trend of Buddhist nationalism spreading from Mandalay, the Burmese hinterland, to the rest of the country.

It was from that centre that the Bama, a warrior people, launched waves of military campaigns and brought under their rule the myriad of peoples settled in the hills, jungles and swamps of an always moving periphery, putting together an empire that in its heyday occupied most of south east Asia. This imperial system adopted different forms and built its glory upon the shoulders of different national heroes, but always remained strongly martial in nature, based on stout rulers that earned their prestige on the battlefield and surrounded themselves of other warriors to maintain peace across such a vast territory. Although governors were sent from the Court of Ava, the provinces enjoyed a high level of autonomy that granted enough flexibility to reconcile unity with diversity. The Emperor progressively built a complex system of alliances and loyalties by co-opting the most powerful families from each region or ethnicity, whether raising the boys into the military elite or arranging for the girls to become the prince’s concubines. It must be noted that these arrangements were mutually reinforcing, as the families who managed to place a daughter into the Palace would see their leverage enhanced not only within the Court, but also towards their own people, which they were all-too-often exploiting instead of protecting.

Aung San Suu Kyi poses by a painting of her father, Gen. Aung San. (Khin Maung Win AP/PA)

Aung San Suu Kyi poses by a painting of her father, Gen. Aung San. (Khin Maung Win, AP/PA)


Comparing a Palace of Concubines to a House of Representatives may be politically incorrect, but it can also be seen as a mechanism for granting inclusiveness and participation to every ethnicity or province. The truth is that the emperor’s marital policy played a key role in maintaining peace and a certain degree of territorial cohesion. It seems that one of the factors that prompted the fall of the king in the third Anglo-Burmese war was precisely his lack of support among the country barons, who were upset by his refusal to take more than one wife, who in turn became very dominant – a decision that still contributes to depicting him as weak, effeminate and prone to a quick and humiliating defeat. King Tibaw’s fall easily translated into lack of resistance to the British and the collapse of the political institutions that bound its subjects, probably because the centralised and top-down model didn’t allowed for much territorial cohesion. So once the Burmese were defeated there wasn’t much reason to stick together: from that moment on, each ethnic group would have to fend for itself and deal with the invaders on its own terms.

This was precisely the management model that the British had in mind. They stayed mainly in the most accessible parts of the country, the central plains and the Irrawaddy Delta, turning coastal Rangoon into their capital – the main objective was to ensure the swift trading of goods to the metropolis rather than keeping together a patchwork state. Reluctant to engage in proper state building, they found it much easier to implement a policy of divide-and-rule that opened many of the wounds still bleeding today. The recruits for their auxiliary military police were Christian converts from the ethnic minority groups (Karens, Kachin and Chin) and agreements were signed with the saophas of Shan, granting them a strong level of autonomy as long as they contributed to the extractive machinery designed to pump raw materials out of the country. Considered as a second degree colony, dependant on the Viceroy of India and thus without direct access to the Queen, the substantial Indian workforce that came with the British only added to the existing racial tensions. This was heightened by the evangelical endeavours of Christian missionaries who converted significant parts of the Karen and Kachin populations, opening yet another division to an already fragmented land.Keeping foreign powers at bay and fighting the enemy from within remain the raison d’être for the development of an army that now numbers 400,000 troops, runs the state bureaucracy and buries its tentacles deep into every profitable business 

This is an extremely simplified account of the Burmese racial and national jigsaw, but it underscores the complexity of the current situation and the longevity of the conflicts amongst numerous populations. Things get even more complicated when one realises that, apart from internal struggles, the other feature that characterises the country is the porosity of its borders. Ever since the Manchu invasions, Myanmar has been exposed to the territorial ambitions of its neighbours, a situation that worsened significantly after its independence and the reconfiguration of forces during the Cold War. After Mao Zedong’s victory in China, the defeated Nationalist army withdrew towards the southwest and settled in Burma’s far east, enlisting many locals and receiving arms and supplies from the CIA while waiting for their chance to launch a counterattack. What was to be temporary ended up turning into a de facto invasion that made the powerless Burmese army realise that they needed to become stronger if they wanted to defend the country. This was – and still is – the main justification of the armed forces, whose motto reads: “The Tatmadaw and the people cooperate and crush all those harming the Union”. To a certain extent they’ve earned their reputation by continuously fighting subversive attempts that their policies provoked in the first place. When the pro-democratic forces led by U-Tun tried to oust Ne Win and re-conquer the country from their bases near the Thai border, they were quite easily repelled. At the same time, the capital suffered from repeated attacks from Communist rebels supported by Maoist China, which kept teaming up with the ethnic militias until the collapse of the Berlin wall, when the insurgency apparently switched ideology for monetary gain and signed a series of ceasefire agreements with the triumphant Tatmadaw. Keeping foreign powers at bay and fighting the enemy from within remain the original raison d’être for the development of an hypertrophic army that now numbers 400,000 troops, runs the state bureaucracy and buries its tentacles deep into every profitable business through a convoluted network of public companies, Chinese investors and untouchable cronies.


Daunting as it may seem, Myanmar is simultaneously embarked on a transition to democracy, an opening of its economy after decades of isolation and a peace process that aims to put an end to over 60 years of civil war, one of the longest internal conflicts on the planet. Out of the 21 Ethnic Armed Organisations (some of them not being recognised by the government), only eight have signed the National Ceasefire Agreement, and most of them are afraid of losing control over the abundant natural resources – fossil fuels, timber and teak, jade and other gems – and the formidable revenues of drug trade. As of today, Myanmar is the second largest producer of poppy and a worthy vertex of the Golden Triangle: during the post-communist truce with the military, some armed groups started refining heroin, a thriving business whose social consequences are seen in the number of addicts and the resulting HIV epidemic. Paradoxically, control over all sorts of illegal trade ensures more than sufficient revenues for some of the Ethnic Armed Organisations to fulfil to a certain extent the role of the state. For almost two generations they have been delivering education and health to the local communities, although lately the modus operandi of some of these fighters is closer to that of mobsters than martyrs and ideologues willing to emancipate their people.the main concern of international observers is that a strictly electoral version of democracy may give way to a “dictatorship of the majority”

Longstanding enemies end up needing each other, so the military are patiently waiting for the first setback in the negotiations to take back power with the same excuse that Ne Win used to overthrow U Nu’s democratic government in the early 1960s. This highlights the enormous task that Suu Kyi is facing: building a country in ruins from a democratic approach, where rules and norms are not being imposed following the top-down dynamics characteristic of foreign domination or military rule. It is precisely this lack of democratic experience that explains the landslide victory of the NLD during the 2015 elections: voting was seen as instrumental to get rid of the military once and for all. So now the main concern of international observers is that a strictly electoral version of democracy may give way to a “dictatorship of the majority”. This is not such a remote possibility if one considers the manner with which the Lady keeps control over her own ranks and leaves scarce room for internal debate, let alone dissent. This attitude is understandable given the delicate situation of the transition process, in which a clumsy remark may jeopardise years of building trust with the military, but that goes dangerously beyond mere party discipline when the NLD refuses to give a more prominent role to civil society or when it refuses to change a “first past the post” electoral system that doesn’t take into account the diversity of the country.

Denouncing power and exerting it are quite different things, and Suu Kyi seems to be facing such a complicated political chessboard that her choices will sooner or later end up disappointing those that still see her as a human rights champion. Still, in the streets of Yangon it is easy to find people wearing t-shirts with the Lady’s effigy and mottos such as “freedom to lead”, “freedom from fear”, “we stand with you” or even “we love you”. The same pop-symbols of a personality cult that still revolves around her father, General Aung San, unanimously considered as the father of the modern Burmese nation. He also needed to manoeuvre between the conflicting interests of two great powers in order to get away with his vision of independent Burma. Recruited and trained by the Japanese, he sided with them during most of Second World War only to masterly change camps at the perfect moment, just when the British were reconquering a minor former colony that, in the end, they couldn’t afford any longer. Nevertheless, what granted him a special place in history as the founding father of modern Burma wasn’t only his political shrewdness or his ability to outsmart his rivals, but the type of prestige associated with martyrdom – he barely had the time to be corrupted by power before being murdered.The parallels between father and daughter are quite revealing: Suu Yyi is also trapped between the conflicting interests of powerful foreign actors

The parallels between father and daughter are quite revealing: Suu Yyi is also trapped between the conflicting interests of powerful foreign actors, especially since the Obama administration decided to focus its foreign policy efforts into building a new international architecture in east Asia. This opened up a window of opportunity to counterweight a powerful neighbour such as China, but it may suddenly close if the proclaimed “America first” doctrine of Donald Trump becomes more than populist babble. In that case Suu Kyi may turn to the EU to help her consolidate her reforms. But with the institutional machinery cracking after Brexit – and without the support of American aircraft carriers – will the EU be capable of effectively lending a hand if anything goes wrong? Will it be ready to upset China by mingling in its backyard? And if so, will it be able to understand all the forces at play in the redefinition of Burmese national identity?


It was actually a European, J.S. Furnivall, who coined the notion of “plural society”. A British-born colonial official and progressive reformer that married a Burmese wife, published a Burmese-English dictionary and authored some of the most influential books on Burmese history, economics and culture, Furnivall has long been one of the key references to understand the political economy of a country still struggling to overcome the legacy of colonialism. According to his definition, the peoples that conform such plural societies “mix but do not combine”: each of them preserve their language, culture and religion, as well as their own cosmogonies, social norms and ways of understanding the world. Of course, this sounds like music to European ears, as it embodies an embryonic version of the plural democracy that most liberal intellectuals have been promoting since the end of the Second World War. But our own experience – and the current state of affairs – should teach us how difficult it is for this model to compete with the idea of the nation as an “imagined community”, just as Benedict Anderson, another expert in south east Asian studies, masterly explained in his famous book.She will also make an easy target for those political rivals that will build their criticism upon the frustration and fear of fragmentation resulting from a process of decentralisation

In its revised edition Anderson added a new chapter, “Census, Map, Museum”, exposing the ways in which these institutions “profoundly shaped the way in which the colonial state imagined its dominion – the nature of the human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry”. Interestingly enough, one of the most significant joint efforts undertaken by Western donors under the supervision of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) consisted precisely in supporting Thein Sein’s government in producing a new countrywide census that was carried out just before the 2015 elections. Needless to say, the resulting Population and Housing Census is expected to have a longstanding political impact. The main reference in Myanmar was still the census of 1983, which inherited the eight official races of the British census of 1931 and divided them into the current 135 subgroups for rather arbitrary reasons.

Despite the hopes that this new census brought among the population, its ethnic categories have attracted a great deal of controversy and ended up stirring old grievances. As if following the same divide-and-rule techniques employed by the British colonial authorities, the new census called participants to identify themselves first with one of the eight official races and then with one of the official 135 ethnic groups inherited from the flawed classification of the previous census. As a result, many groups were either excluded, or repeated under different names, or incorrectly identified, or even subdivided (the Chins, for instance, are split into 53 categories). In other words, the pretended objectivity of the exercise collided head-on with the subjective dimension of identity, which is what can happen when bureaucracy tries to capture social reality.

This brings us back to Aung San Suu Kyi and the concessions to realpolitik that she is making since electoral victory. While in the opposition she managed to gather a wide array of actors that shared the same objective of getting rid of the military. Now that the responsibility to govern rests on her shoulders, the former “common enemy” can easily boycott the parallel peace, economic and democratic transition processes and, what is worse, do it from within. She will also make an easy target for those political rivals that will build their criticism upon the frustration and fear of fragmentation resulting from a process of decentralisation that, whatever form it finally takes, will not leave everyone satisfied. Not to mention the potential for corruption that the impressive increase in the amount of foreign capital entering the country presents among her own ranks. In all events, there are too many factors that escape her control and risk eroding her prestige unless she distances herself from daily affairs, a strategic withdrawal from the frontline that she doesn’t seem likely to undertake. After all she’s spent half her life fighting against fear and, very much like her father, she doesn’t care much about what others think about her. Which is probably the feature that makes her such an exceptional leader in these times of post-truth democracy.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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