Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: A Struggle between Domestic and International Legitimacy

Saw Tha Wah writes on the deteriorating situation of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. He considers the prospects for improvement to be bleak.

The deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Myanmar that has resulted in a massive outflow of the country’s Muslim population puts incumbent State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, into a tight spot where she is forced to choose between domestic and international legitimacy. To be a legitimate leader is to acquire support, recognition and power from the public based on shared norms and values. Suu Kyi is caught between the competing demands of domestic and international legitimacy as domestic political conditions combined with ethno-religious turmoil are met with outrage at the international level, which is dominated by the liberal international order. This article suggests that Suu Kyi would likely lean towards domestic legitimacy rather than international norms due to one principal reason: the people’s support accounts for the main source of her domestic legitimacy as well as the political survival of her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

With that being said, Myanmar’s 87.9% Buddhist population makes up a considerable share of Suu Kyi’s voter base from which she draws her domestic legitimacy. As the tragedy for the Rohingya people unfolds, it has become apparent that the majority of the Burmese Buddhist population have little sympathy for the Muslim minority, believing them to be migrants from Bangladesh and insisting that they be called Bengali. As a politician, Suu Kyi’s legitimacy depends heavily on those who express the strongest nationalist sentiments. Depicting a narrative in opposition to that of the international criticism surrounding the crisis, Suu Kyi enjoys widespread support from her own people who actively back her through frequent public demonstrations, touting messages such as  “We stand with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.” Such support signals Suu Kyi’s growing domestic legitimacy, despite the external criticisms she has faced.

Suu Kyi seems to have become more reliant on popular support to consolidate her grip on power and avoid a potential ultra-nationalist backlash. Given the fragile condition of Myanmar’s domestic political landscape, where ultra-nationalist movements are already deeply rooted, ethno-religious conflicts are ticking time bombs that could be easily manipulated by interest groups such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) or the military itself to weaken the NLD. Suu Kyi realizes that such undesirable consequences would undermine her domestic legitimacy, and eventually result in the fall of the NLD.

The political survival of Suu Kyi and the NLD is crucial not only for her domestic legitimacy in the short term, but also for the future of Myanmar’s democracy. Some suggest that a reversal in Myanmar’s democratization could lead to a “soft authoritarian regime” under military rule. A positive outcome, however, would see Suu Kyi maintain her legitimacy and extend the NLD’s influence in congress in the upcoming general elections. Time and opportunity would then be given to other political parties and civil society organizations to enhance their capabilities for political participation. Competitive elections, where multiple parties stand a chance, and civil society participation are essential elements for democracy, the achievement of which seems to be impossible without the NLD.

Ultimately, it is likely that Suu Kyi will focus more on gaining domestic legitimacy. However, this is not to say that international legitimacy does not matter. indeed, Suu Kyi’s reputation and international recognition as an advocate for democracy has benefitted Myanmar in the form of larger foreign packages, economic opportunities, and a wider array of foreign policy options that have helped to reduce Myanmar’s dependence on China and improve its credibility within the international community. However, although the current crisis has resulted in a withdrawal of support from western countries, powerful states such as India, China and Russia are taking sides with Myanmar. All things considered, Suu Kyi will rank internal support as being more important than external legitimacy because Myanmar can still rely on the support of the major powers in the East.

Saw Tha Wah is a recent graduate of International Law and Diplomacy from the Assumption University of Thailand. He is a contributor at the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies and co-founder of the Center for the Study of Myanmar Politics and Society.

Photo by Rob React