Two recent developments in Myanmar suggest that the State Administration Council has come round to banking on the iconic status of Aung San Suu Kyi as a political ploy.
Editor’s note: This commentary has been updated and modified to take into account, among other things, the report of a Japan-registered media outlet about the meeting between DPM Don and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Two developments occurred in Myanmar in July, both centred on deposed leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi. They suggest a shift in the calculations of the State Administration Council (SAC), centred on leveraging the Aung San Suu Kyi factor as the junta faces increased isolation.
In mid-July 2023, the hearts of Myanmar observers’ were set aflutter when Thailand’s outgoing Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai disclosed that he had met with Myanmar’s deposed leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
DPM Don’s update to his ASEAN counterparts at the 56th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting drew much comment, ranging from the lack of consultation that seemed to upstage current ASEAN Chair Indonesia’s efforts, to speculation on the veracity of DPM Don’s report that Aung San Suu Kyi had expressed support for efforts to defuse conflicts in Myanmar “through dialogue“. Interestingly, the news of DPM Don’s meeting with the Lady was first carried not by state-run media, but by a relatively unknown media outlet. PanOrient News reported that Aung San Suu Kyi had said that she “neither recognizes nor supports the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) and its armed wing, the People’s Defense Forces (PDF).
PanOrient News is a company registered in Japan in 2006 as an “independent media corporation” covering news in Japan and East Asia. The company’s owner had met with the SAC foreign minister in May 2023. Given that PanOrient is the only media outlet which has reported about Aung San Suu Kyi’s position towards the NUG and the PDF, the veracity of this point in the PanOrient report cannot be ascertained with a high level of confidence.
Attention is also focused now on the emerging story of the SAC moving Aung San Suu Kyi out of Naypyitaw Prison to a VIP-level compound in the capital, reportedly to serve out her prison term in home confinement. The SAC had sentenced her to a 33-year prison term under multiple charges. Though official confirmation is still pending at the time of writing, Aung San Suu Kyi’s transfer is ostensibly part of an act of clemency to commemorate the Maravijaya Buddha consecration scheduled for 1 August. An official from her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) confirmed the transfer, but a SAC spokesperson, speaking to VOA Burmese, has denied hearing of any such move.
Nevertheless, the SAC’s gambit to place Aung San Suu Kyi as a central point of focus highlights some shifts in its calculations and a continuing reality.
Despite its anti-NLD bent, the SAC still views Aung San Suu Kyi as a useful political instrument. They are not above exploiting her popularity to lend an aura of legitimacy to their actions, especially in the argument for stability amidst sensitivities and speculations surrounding her potential role and involvement in the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. The SAC’s orchestration of DPM Don as the first external interlocutor to meet Daw Suu in person since the coup indicates how the junta has monitored and assessed the international response to the 2021 coup to leverage its diplomatic advantage.
The SAC is also playing the Aung San Suu Kyi card against the resistance movement. The SAC appears to be using her as a gambit of sorts to hit back at the NUG in the legitimacy stakes. The SAC consistently emphasises to external interlocutors that the NUG cannot be considered a stakeholder or counterpart in dialogue, pointing out that not all PDFs or local defence forces come under the NUG’s chain of command. DPM Don had made a point to mention Aung San Suu Kyi’s rejection of the NUG and PDFs in reporting his meeting with her. Herein lies an additional utility for the SAC, given the ambiguity. There is as yet no official report of the Don-Suu meeting, which is different from the previous State Peace and Development Council military regime’s careful publicity of foreign envoys’ meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi. The absence of an official transcript or recording of the meeting plays to the SAC’s advantage.
Amid uncertainties, one thing remains clear — whether visibly present or absent in Myanmar’s political landscape, the Myanmar military still considers Aung San Suu Kyi as a ‘perfect hostage’ and a valuable political bargaining chip.
The junta is exploiting Aung San Suu Kyi’s influence for its political gain at a time when there is a growing debate about her status more than two years after the coup. The scale and direction of the current resistance to the military in Myanmar have led to observations that Aung San Suu Kyi’s heyday in Myanmar politics may be over, as resistance to military rule has persisted without her direct involvement or support, and that her failure to forestall the coup and her unsuccessful policies for a peaceful political transition have damaged her popularity within Myanmar. Some even view her absence as an opportunity to embrace a new era of political leadership.
Still, however, her iconic status still commands respect in Myanmar. The NUG is drawing on Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership legacy to reinforce their claim as the ongoing representation of the deposed NLD government, even while adapting to the political exigencies of the growing calls for a federal democracy and more inclusion. Many armed fighters, whether with PDFs or with various armed resistance groups operating outside the NUG’s control, still invoke Aung San Suu Kyi’s name. Others remain sympathetic to her role and contributions to the country’s democracy struggle.
The junta’s drip-feeding of information about Aung San Suu Kyi suggests that it is using her to their advantage. Detained the same day as the coup, Aung San Suu Kyi has been absent from the forefront of Myanmar’s politics since February 2021. The SAC’s move to bring Aung San Suu Kyi back into the limelight only adds to the uncertainty as to whether the military regime seeks to orchestrate an exit strategy that protects its survival interests.
There are other uncertainties. The absence of photo evidence of the Don-Suu meeting fuels concerns about the state of her health. DPM Don had mentioned in his update to ASEAN counterparts that she was in good health. The meeting has also led to speculation on the potential long line of other envoys and representatives seeking to meet the Lady.
Amid uncertainties, one thing remains clear — whether she is visibly present or absent in Myanmar’s political landscape, the Myanmar military still considers Aung San Suu Kyi as a ‘perfect hostage’ and a valuable political bargaining chip.
Kyi Sin is a Research Officer at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and is a candidate for the Master in Public Policy (MPP) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Moe Thuzar is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.