Feb 16, 2013

Myanmar - Suu Kyi’s fading glory

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In November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was freed from years of house arrest amid a tightly choreographed transition from military to democratic rule.

Eighteen months later, her NLD won 43 out of 45 seats up for grabs in parliament in democratic by-elections, winning Suu Kyi an elected seat in parliament after her party's boycott of the 2010 polls.

The 2010 elections, widely derided as rigged and unfair, were won overwhelmingly by military-backed candidates. While Suu Kyi's strong victory at the subsequent by-elections underscored her still strong popularity, the fact that she and her party were allowed to run after being officially banned reflected positively on President Thein Sein and his widely lauded democratic reform drive. [1]

Suu Kyi was an inspirational opposition leader during the dark days of military rule, from which she emerged as a symbol of freedom and democracy. She spent 14 out of 20 years under house arrest over that period. But as the country begins to look towards new elections and greater democracy in 2015, questions previously unheard of are being raised about whether Suu Kyi would be well-suited to serve as president.

As national leader, Suu Kyi would have to manage more than 135 groups that are highly divided along ethnic and religious lines. Failure to meet persistent calls for greater autonomy in ethnic minority regions would undoubtedly undermine her historical legacy as a champion of national unity and reconciliation.

As the daughter of independence hero Aung San, Suu Kyi has long been associated with her country's fight for freedom. Aung San's interim post-independence government entered the Panglong Agreement in 1947, a deal that granted full autonomy to "frontier areas" occupied by ethnic minority groups. He was assassinated that same year and the agreement was never implemented, providing the initial spark for many of the ethnic insurgencies that have inflamed the country for decades.

Suu Kyi famously followed in her father's footsteps by making her first potent political appearance in August 1988 in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most sacred Buddhist shrine and the site where Aung San made a famous pro-independence speech in 1946. In the lead up to and after the military's 1988 bloody crackdown on street demonstrators opposed to military rule, Suu Kyi emerged as a clarion voice in favor of democracy.

She and her party swept 1990 elections, but the military annulled the results and maintained power through iron fist rule. Although Suu Kyi had the chance to leave and reunite with her family overseas, she stayed in Myanmar (or Burma, as it is also known) and endured years of harassment and detention while mounting a non-violent struggle for democracy.

When asked if she ever considered leaving, including after what was widely viewed as an assassination attempt on her motorcade in 2003, she responded in an interview, "I never thought there was a choice. I never thought of leaving Burma. I always thought that as long as there was one person who believed in democracy in Burma, I had to stay with that person." [2]

During her years under house arrest, Suu Kyi's discourse always spoke in favor of change through peace and non-violence. In a 1996 interview, Suu Kyi described her views on politics through non-violence: "I do not believe in an armed struggle because it will perpetrate the tradition that he who is best at wielding arms, wields power... That will not help democracy."

More recently, according to NLD spokesman Nyan Win, Suu Kyi "has remained a devoted Buddhist who from the beginning admired the principles of non-violence and civil disobedience espoused by India's Mahatma Gandhi. [3] Her passion for non-violence won her a Nobel Peace prize in 1990, when her party won an election that was never recognized by the junta."

For decades, Suu Kyi has symbolically and elegantly represented opposition to military rule and in the name of freedom support for the cause of persecuted ethnic minorities. She was named the "Lady" in part for her ability to win the trust of ethnic groups through her non-violent message and for speaking out forcefully against the human rights violations perpetuated by the military in conflict zones.

Yet if Suu Kyi wins the presidency in 2015, she will face huge challenges and obstacles in maintaining this exalted stature. As national leader, she will need to be seen as satisfying the demands of a multi-ethnic and divided population while simultaneously working with a parliament that reserves 25% of its seats for military officials who have strongly opposed autonomy for ethnic regions.

Rather than serving as a pro-democracy icon, as president she would head what would still most likely be a military-dominated political system. As a parliamentarian, she has already been perceived by some to compromise on principle by taking a more middle-of-the-road position on important national issues, including ethnic conflicts.

In recent months, Suu Kyi has been subjected to unusually sharp criticism for her perceived as limp response to conflict in Rakhine State, where Buddhist Rakhine's have clashed violently with Muslim Rohingyas. In an interview with the New York Times in September 2012, Suu Kyi said, "I know that people want me to [speak on the issue], they want strong and colorful condemnation, which I won't do, because I don't think it helps."

She said that "I've always spoken out against human rights abuses but not against a particular community... If you condemn one community that makes the other community more hostile towards that community." Suu Kyi said she believes that the solution to the conflict should be based on rule by law that promotes ethnic reconciliation. "It must be based on sound citizenship laws," she said. [4]

Her reactions, or lack thereof, to the escalating Kachin State conflict have also sparked widespread criticism, including from among her once erstwhile supporters. Neng Seng, a Kachin human rights activist, wrote a recent article in the Huffington Post entitled "I Feel Betrayed by Aung San Suu Kyi", in which she described her frustration and disappointment with the lack of action by her previous idol.

"She [Suu Kyi] remained silent over serious human rights violations committed by government army soldiers, including attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence ... Aung San Suu Kyi's principled stance and moral example once inspired me…you cannot be neutral, cannot be silent, in the face of such terrible abuses, because silence and neutrality enables those abuses to continue... I feel angry, betrayed and sad." [5]

The Irrawaddy, one of Myanmar's respected liberal newsmagazines that historically often portrayed Suu Kyi in a favorable light, recently wrote, "As long as Suu Kyi continues to avoid taking any meaningful stance on the very real issues that plague [Myanmar], the 'democratically united' country that she spoke of in her speech will remain as elusive as ever." [6]

As an elected politician, Suu Kyi will be unable to appease and please all constituencies in her sharply divided country. As a parliamentarian, she has already been required to make tough choices with limited budgets, undeveloped infrastructures, and restricted capacities. As in any democratic system, there have been sharp disagreements within her own party, with some feeling she has been too engaged with the military-dominated government and others feeling she has not done enough.

For Myanmar's military and military-associated politicians, such criticism is less problematic after facing blame for decades of mismanagement and corrupt rule. But the once almost universally popular Suu Kyi has much more to lose when she fails to please her former backers and supporters, including in ethnic minority areas.

It should be remembered that responsibility for the assassination of Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, was placed on a political rival, former prime minister U Saw. It was Aung San's popularity and worldwide recognition for his leadership in ending British colonialism that led to the political divisions that motivated his death. Today, recognition for the exceptional democratic advances made under Thein Sein's presidency have sparked similar political competition and jealousy, within both the military and opposition party.

Suu Kyi's legacy as a great opposition leader is already secure, witnessed in the outpouring of sentiment and support she has received from the global community during recent overseas trips. But would she be able to achieve the same recognition as Myanmar's national leader if elected as president in 2015?

To be sure, Suu Kyi faces major obstacles in her personal transition from pro-democracy icon and symbol of freedom amid oppression to mainstream politician in a quasi-civilian, military-dominated political order. How she handles that transition and manages her once spotless image over the next two years will largely determine her electability amid fast-changing expectations in a fast-changing Myanmar.

1. One Year of Myanmar's Thein Sein Government: Background and Outlook of Reforms, IDE-Jetro, May 2012.
2. Burmese Dissident Speaks at Institute of Politics, The Harvard Crimson, September 28, 2012.
3. Aung San Suu Kyi, a tenacious fighter for democracy, CNN, November 20, 2011.
4. A Conversation with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, New York Times, September 30, 2012.
5. I Feel Betrayed by Aung San Suu Kyi, Huffington Post, October 2, 2012.
6. Suu Kyi Remains Silent as Burma Burn, Irrawaddy, January 5, 2013.

Billy Tea 

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