The Cautionary Tale of Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar

On February 1, 2021 Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counselor of Myanmar was removed from office by the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar. Her ouster followed the Myanmar national election in November 2020 in which Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won 60% of the vote and an outright majority in both chambers of the Burmese legislature. Suu Kyi was first elected to serve as Myanmar’s state counselor — a position created to allow her to constitutionally serve as Myanmar’s de facto head of state — in 2015, when the National League for Democracy won the national election by similar margins to the election they won in November. The Tatmadaw has held Suu Kyi and her close political ally President U Win Myint at an undisclosed location. They are both due to stand a secret trial on obscure procedural charges (Suu Kyi has been accused of using unregistered walkie talkies, which if convicted could lead to up to six years in prison.)[2] the coup is ongoing but the story of Myanmar, the Tatmadaw, the National League for Democracy, and indeed Aung San Suu Kyi herself is far more extensive, and is important for understanding the situation in Myanmar and what it means for the rest of the world.

In 1948 Myanmar, then called Burma, gained independence from the United Kingdom. After over a decade of political instability the elected government was overthrown by a military coup in 1962.[9] The newly-reigning Tatmadaw under the leadership of Ne Win suspended the constitution, banned all political parties, and presented a state development plan that rejected both western values and Maoist influences in favor of a new flavor of Burmese nationalism.[1][23][24] The institutional power of the military remained until 1988 when a national uprising weakened the military’s control of government. Subsequently the military renamed the country to “Myanmar,” cracked down on suspected communists and formed the State Peace and Development Council, through which the Tatmadaw could continue to control the country.[4]

The 1990 general election, the first multi-party election in the country since 1960, saw an overwhelming victory for the newly formed National League for Democracy. The ruling council refused to recognize the election results and imprisoned several NLD leaders, among them their chief candidate Aung San Suu Kyi.[4]

Aung San Suu Kyi was born the youngest daughter of Aung San, Myanmar’s foremost independence leader. Though she spent much of her life pursuing education at Oxford and other UK institutions she returned to Myanmar in 1988 in time for the mass uprisings. She along with several others founded the NLD. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989 during the campaign, and would remain under house arrest for 15 of the following 21 years. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” In 2010, the Myanmar military government, under intense international pressure released Suu Kyi from house arrest just after Myanmar’s 2010 general election, which the NLD boycotted over concerns of election fairness. In 2015, after years of being blocked from holding national office, Suu Kyi was elected president of Myanmar in a landslide victory.[12]

However Suu Kyi’s long-awaited presidency would be punctuated by much of the same violence and military control. Most prominently Suu Kyi’s government presided over a deadly multi-year military campaign to extirpate Myanmar’s minority Rohingya Muslim population.[5] During the campaign the Tatmadaw was accused of extra-judicial killings and assaults, as well as burning Rohingya villages in Rakhine state.[7] A UN report from 2018 estimated 25,000 Rohingya people were killed by the Burmese military, and another 700,000 were forced to flee across the border into Bangladesh.[11] Suu Kyi’s government defended the campaign of ethnic cleansing calling it a campaign against terrorist insurgents and accused the media of spreading misinformation about the campaign. Furthermore Suu Kyi defended the Tatmadaw in 2019 at an International Court of Justice hearing, claiming again the campaign was merely a counterinsurgency effort against Rohingya nationalist paramilitaries. The hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees created was, in Suu Kyi’s opinion, an unavoidable byproduct of the campaign.[13]

And despite all of Suu Kyi’s efforts to defend the Tatmadaw around globe, and despite her affording them limitless freedom to pursue ethnic violence and genocide, she is now their prisoner and may very well be their prisoner indefinitely. Suu Kyi finds herself now in the same position she was in for many years, a prisoner of the Burmese military regime. Except this time she is much older, and has the blood of millions of innocents on her hands. No longer is she the tragic persecuted saint that western media portrayed her to be prior to 2015.[6] Instead she is now just another fallen despot haunted by a legacy of ethnic violence. Suu Kyi finds herself now compared to Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, Shimon Peres, Juan Manuel Santos, and other violent warmongers who somehow possess a Nobel Peace Prize.[10]

Neither Suu Kyi nor the National League for Democracy ever intended to radically restructure the Burmese government upon their assumption into power. Suu Kyi’s campaign frequently called for talks with the fascistic Tatmadaw leaders, calling for procedural solutions to allow the Tatmadaw to continue to exist alongside a democratic Myanmar.[14] In her political campaigns Suu Kyi made the same twofold mistake that liberals frequently do when seeking power. Firstly, she fails to consider that procedural changes inevitably become insubstantial as long as the powers seeking to maintain the status quo can dictate those procedures. Secondly and most critically, she fails to recognize that fascists never allow themselves to share or democratize power even if it partially adheres to their immediate wants. Fascism’s goals require the consolidation of all available power, as it is designed specifically to prevent the same parliamentary democracy that Suu Kyi is trying to establish.

But the consequences of Suu Kyi’s strategic and moral failings are not hers alone. The Rohingya Muslims remain a persecuted people, unwelcome in their homes in Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, and Thailand.[8] Earlier this year Bangladesh began forcibly relocating Rohingya refugees inside the country just before fires devastated the existing Rohingya refugee camps.[15][18] The Rohingya are a stateless people, without a permanent home continually shuffled around by governments who see their lives and humanity as problems. Suu Kyi’s complicity (and yes, active participation) in the Tatmadaw’s Rohingya genocide denies the Rohingya people what they need most: a home where they can be accepted and welcomed as equals.

Since the coup this past February the people of Myanmar have protested fiercely against the return of the military regime.[3] The military has responded to the protests with a violent crackdown, including multiple instances of violence against civilian protesters that have left dozens dead.[16][20] More generally the Burmese police have taken to dispersing protests with rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons as people demand the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders.[19] If Suu Kyi’s responsibility as an elected leader in a fascistic military police state was to disempower and deconstruct the oppressive force, then she was, during her time in power, woefully derelict in this duty. Suu Kyi did not attempt to, while in power, remove the military’s constitutional protections, remove their representatives from national government, nor have military leaders tried in national (or international) courts. Her failure to properly disempower fascism is the failure of institutional liberalism around the world, both in ideology and practice. But the consequences of this failure are shared by people around the globe who suffer the brunt of fascism’s brutality.

Commensurate with this failure is the international reaction to February’s coup which amounts to little more than a resounding shrug. Governments around the globe have responded with statements either expressing concern for, or condemning the coup attempt. A UN security emergency meeting held in February could not produce a resolution urging the “restoration of democracy” in Myanmar.[17] The most severe international reactions to the Myanmar coup come from New Zealand, which has suspended international relations with Myanmar,[21] and the United States which has imposed new sanctions on coup leaders[22] (and I encourage you to read Tony’s excellent piece on why sanctions will not work). The unfortunate truth is that the international community cannot help so long as its membership (and yes, this includes western liberal democracies) is complicit in many of the same crimes and abuses perpetrated by the government of Myanmar. Only by understanding how fascism operates and draws strength, and empowering people, not national leaders, can we begin the destruction of fascist institutions and protect the people most harmed by its abuses.


  1. – A somewhat simplified history of Myanmar post-independence
  2. – The BBC’s summary of the coup in Myanmar and subsequent events.
  3. – The New York Times’ summary of protests in Myanmar since February 1.
  5. – A NPR timeline summary of the 1988 protests in Myanmar which catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi to power.
  6. – A Marxist perspective on Aung San Suu Kyi’s participation in the Rohingya genocide as well as her denials at the ICJ. (see afterword)
  7. – A recounting of the Burmese military’s actions against the Rohingya people
  8. – India and Bangladesh’s support for Myanmar throughout the Rohingya genocide
  9. – A history of the military rule in Myanmar
  10. – Opinion piece about Nobel Prize winners complicit in war crimes
  11. – UN report about the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar
  12. – A long form profile of Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from grace, with both Burmese and Rohingya perspectives on the military campaign.
  13. – Aung San Suu Kyi’s testimony to the ICJ
  14. – Recounting of Aung San Suu Kyi’s strategy with respect of the Tatmadaw government back in 2014
  15. – Bangladesh’s relocation of the Rohingya people
  16. – Reports of police attacking medics in Burmese protests
  17. – Report of the UN taking no official action on the Myanmar coup
  18. – A report of the fires in the Rohingya encampments in Bangladesh and perspective about anti-Rohingya sentiment throughout South Asia
  19. – Reports of police using lethal force in dispersing anti-military protests
  20. – Reports of civilians killed by police forces in Myanmar
  21.–to-ban-visits-from-military-leaders-14144806 – New Zealand cuts off diplomatic ties with Myanmar after the coup
  22. – The Biden administration announces sanctions against coup leaders
  23. – An academic article from 1963 dissecting Ne Win’s “Burmese Way to Socialism” plan
  24. – An article detailing the history of the coup government’s squabbles with the PRC. (Be cautious though, this one can get a little propagandistic)