Fri, Dec 07, 2018 - Page 9 News List

A new wave of activists look beyond Aung San Suu Kyi

Disillusioned by government censorship, arrests of reporters and the handling of the Rohingya crisis, young activists are challenging their aging leadership

By Shoon Naing and Poppy McPherson  /  Reuters, YANGON, Myanmar

Illustration: Mountain People

Young activist and television host Thinzar Shun Lei Yi would once have called herself one of Burmese State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s greatest fans. Now, she is one of her most vocal critics.

The 27-year-old belongs to a small, but high-profile group of liberal activists, many former die-hard Aung San Suu Kyi supporters, who are growing increasingly disillusioned with the administration they voted into power with sky-high hopes three years ago.

“I lost my idol; I’m confused, frustrated and lost,” said Thinzar Shun Lei Yi, who hosts an Under 30 talk show on a popular local Web site.

“Most of the activists and youths are now thinking: ‘What is next,’ ‘What will happen,’ ‘What can we do?’ At this stage, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is going her own way and nobody can intervene, and she won’t listen to civil society organizations,” she said, using the honorific for women in Myanmar.

While Aung San Suu Kyi continues to inspire devotion among many ordinary Burmese, the emergence of a dissenting youth movement — driven by anger over her handling of ethnic minorities, including the Muslim Rohingya, as well as curbs on the media and civil society — presents a new challenge for her administration.

At stake is the future of Myanmar’s transition toward democracy after years of military rule. With a general election looming in 2020, the nation’s first civilian government in decades is confronted with growing divisions among activists who once coalesced around her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt said the party was trying to win over young people, increasing the budget for education and supporting vocational training programs.

“The youth and the people expected a lot from our government,” he said. “We couldn’t live up to their expectations, we admit, but we are doing our best.”

Aung San Suu Kyi took power in 2016 after a landslide election win, vowing to continue democratic reforms and end the country’s long-running civil wars.

Since then, the administration has come under pressure over its response to a military crackdown against the Rohingya minority that the UN has described as “ethnic cleansing” with “genocidal intent,” as well as faltering peace talks with ethnic armed groups and a stagnating economy.

Activists say the civilian government has also become increasingly authoritarian, failing to use its overwhelming legislative majority to scrap colonial-era laws used to stifle dissent, while tightening restrictions on civil society.

In recent months, they have staged several protests, including an anti-war march in Yangon in May that ended in scuffles. A total of 17 people were charged with unlawful protest, including Thinzar Shun Lei Yi. Their trial is ongoing.

“Sensitive issues are banned, and protesters arrested and beaten,” she said. “The National League of Democracy, the party using the name of democracy, must respect democracy and human rights.”

According to free speech organization Athan, which means “voice” in Burmese, 44 journalists and 142 activists have faced trial since the Aung San Suu Kyi government took power.

They include Reuters reporters Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who in September were sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted of breaking the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

The journalists are appealing their conviction to the High Court, citing evidence of a police set-up and lack of proof of a crime.

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