She runs her party like a dictator.”
“She doesn’t listen, or accept advice.”
“She treats us as if we are school children and that we dare not question her as the elder.”
It was hardly a positive assessment of Aung San Suu Kyi that I received upon returning to the country where I once lived, Myanmar.
It was to be expected that the optimism of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate taking power would fade, but frustrations among those working with her government seemed to be boiling over.
Even more alarming, these anecdotes were delivered in hushed tones, with sideways glances, and only after I promised not to quote the people telling them. It felt like I had returned to the bad old Myanmar, when I had to report undercover and meet people in secret.
For a brief period under the quasi-civilian government led by former general Thein Sein, people felt free to test the boundaries of their new-found freedoms, especially on Facebook, which exploded in popularity once Myanmar went online.
But then came 66D, a section of the telecommunications act which allows anyone to sue for online criminal defamation. Judges have used it to lock up dozens of people critical of Suu Kyi, her party and the military, without bail.
Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, has the numbers in parliament to reform the law, but sources say the party is reluctant to do so.
Compared with the other problems Aung San Suu Kyi is grappling with, 66D is low on the priority list. International attention has rightly focused on the plight of the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority which has reportedly suffered horrific treatment at the hands of the military on her watch.
Her government denies systematic rape and torture of the Rohingya, but human rights abuses are happening all over the country.
If you travel north to Kachin or Shan states, you’ll find the civil war there has got worse, despite Suu Kyi stating that peace is her main priority. Humanitarian access has been denied to thousands of internally displaced people in Kachin state, some of whom voted for Suu Kyi in the hope of change.
All the while, Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent about the military’s attacks. She has not given any interviews to Myanmar journalists since taking power. Aside from a few interviews with hand-picked foreign journalists, her people barely hear from her at all.
Many ask how she can stand by and let this unfold. The most obvious answer is that she still does not control the military, which retains 25 percent of seats in parliament and holds three powerful ministries.
But there is increasing evidence that Suu Kyi is failing to address the things that are within her control.
After a recent visit, the respected former US Ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, outlined a list of complaints against Suu Kyi: limited communication with the media, tense relations with civil society, a top-down style of leadership, gridlock in decision-making, frustration over the state of the peace process and a lack of a clear and detailed economic policy.
“I think she could have done more,” he said. “Clearly she is constrained by the military and the need to create a government. She’s never governed. But she’s a powerful figure, she’s iconic in the country and she could have spoken up more.”
In a rare address to the nation on the one-year anniversary of taking power, Suu Kyi noted the criticism, but remained steadfast. “No one understands our country’s situation and our needs better than we,” she said. “The people have steadfastly rendered their support and stood by us and have shown understanding.”
It’s true that she remains the country’s most overwhelmingly popular politician. However, whether it is outlining a vision for her nation, condemning human rights abuses, allowing humanitarian access to conflict zones, delegating authority, listening more or reforming defamation laws; if Aung San Suu Kyi fails to act on the things that lie within her power, then she fails on her own terms.