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Myanmar needs new generation to lead it - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Southeast Asia suffers from a crisis of leadership whereby the old guard are unwilling to make way for new and younger leaders to emerge through compromise and accommodation to usher in change and reform while maintaining a measure of continuity.

Where term limits apply, such as in Indonesia, the Philippines and communist-ruled Laos and Vietnam, incumbent leaders are required to leave after a stint or two but often they end up arranging their offspring and protégé to take their place. Where term limits do not apply, such as in Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, entrenched leaders can hang around for a long time and leave dynastic and proxy rule in their wake.

While it has a two-term limit for its presidency, Myanmar fits this mould in a peculiar way. Its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is the only offspring of General Aung San, the country's founding father from the 1940s. Although she is Myanmar's real leader of government, with the title of "state counsellor", she is not its president, an office barred by the military-inspired constitution for any Myanmar national with a spouse or children of foreign nationality. This means Ms Suu Kyi can technically lead Myanmar for more than two terms.

On the other hand, Myanmar's army, also known as the Tatmadaw, is the institution that led the country for nearly 50 years after a military coup in 1962 and dictatorship since. Both Ms Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw appear intent on staying in power indefinitely, unwilling to delegate and share it with younger and more promising leaders. This past week, for example, marked the 30th anniversary of the so-called "8888" generation, representing the student movement that rose up against military dictatorship in August 1988 who were suppressed, with many driven into exile. Now in their 50s, this generation should be leading the country but they are not.

Instead, the 73-year-old Ms Suu Kyi remains front and centre, together with a coterie of her ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders. Myanmar's civil-military compromise based on a power-sharing constitution from 2008 that resulted in the November 2015 election still holds. But it has come at the cost of a global outcry over the expulsion and handling of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's westernmost Rakhine state.

Myanmar's economic growth is likely to motor on in the 5-7% range for the next several years from a relatively low base but its NLD-led government will be ironically isolated and alienated from the international community, weighed down by the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar faced international opprobrium for years because of Ms Suu Kyi's house arrest but now it is increasingly isolated despite her being at the helm of government.

At issue from the outset of Myanmar's democratic transition were Ms Suu Kyi's personality and governing style and the country's historical legacy from Buddhist-Burmese nationalism mixed with British imperial subjugation. This is why the Suu Kyi-led government is mired in the Rohingya crisis in view of ongoing global condemnation. By all accounts from diplomats and consultants to journalists and NGO workers who have dealt with her, Ms Suu Kyi has proved a poor leader, a micro-manager bent on top-down control, out of her depth with organisational tasks and longer-term strategic objectives. She is more suited fighting for democracy than leading it.

Yet she is still the only game in town, as Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the defence chief, is unattractive to the international community.

Myanmar's medium-term problem is that Ms Suu Kyi has not groomed younger echelons to succeed her, frustrating many of the up-and-coming leaders from the "8888" generation. By age comparison, the NLD cabinet's average age is over 65. The NLD's leadership dynamics merit attention over the next two years. The same goes for the Tatmadaw-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and smaller parties. The political party scene will likely see new players, defections and realignments ahead of Myanmar's elections in 2020.

Myanmar's immediate challenge is the Rohingya issue. The Tatmadaw had some legitimacy responding forcefully to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army's provocative raids on police posts and an army base a year ago. But what began as the Tatmadaw's "clearance operations" against Arsa insurgents degenerated into a protracted humanitarian disaster in what the top UN human rights official has labelled a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing". Many thousands of Rohingya Muslims are now scattered on the Bangladesh side of its border with Myanmar, all of them in squalid and desperate conditions. The problem is that the government and the Tatmadaw have not allowed the Rohingya to return.

Unsurprisingly, international sanctions are back in response to the Myanmar government's treatment of Rohingya Muslims. The United States has imposed visa bans on Myanmar officials (and their family members) from the ministries of Labour, Immigration and Population, and Home Affairs. In view of the Trump administration's apparent leniency on Ms Suu Kyi and her government (as compared with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his single-party rule), these visa sanctions could have been much worse. The European Union is also under pressure to take punitive measures on behalf of the Rohingya plight, although Asean will not be vocal. Ms Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, meanwhile, are foot-dragging. When it comes to hatred of Rohingya Muslims, who are seen as interlopers from British colonial rule, all sides in Myanmar politics close ranks.

Yet while Myanmar's political risks have risen, economic opportunities abound. The IMF said Myanmar's GDP grew 6.4% in 2017 and should reach 6.8% this year. The World Bank forecasts 7.2% growth in the medium term, though more structural reforms are needed to sustain this momentum. Caution and care should be placed on how bad the situation becomes. If the status quo continues or worsens, the global outcry will mount, with calls for punitive steps.

But if there is a semblance of redress and accountability from the government, especially against Tatmadaw abuses in Rakhine state, the threat of more sanctions will ease. Myanmar's democratic transition has become a tale without a happy ending. Ms Suu Kyi now looks like a fallen icon, and Myanmar has lost its shine. The only way to move forward is for younger talent to step up and for the old guard to step aside.