Tue 29 May 2012
Filed under: Opinion,Other
When Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League of Democracy receives her Nobel Peace Prize and gives an address to the House of Commons in England next month, it will mark an historic moment for Southeast Asia.
Never before has such an opposition politician been bestowed with such honours. Over the past several months, Suu Kyi has dominated news headlines both at home and abroad. Her meetings with numerous world leaders visiting Myanmar got more coverage than those leaders’ visits to the capital city, Nayphitaw. Some European leaders even sidelined protocol and showed their preference by spending extra hours with her – or being seen with her – at the famous lakeside house than with their hosts up in the north.
Apparently she is walking the same path set forth by another Nobel laureate, Nelson Mandela, before her, although their political struggles are quite different.
She wants democracy through non-violent means, while he originally wanted an end to apartheid by any means. At this juncture, it is still too early to say whether she can achieve the same level of influence and goodwill as him.
Undeniably, though, South Africa’s overall status in Africa and the world has been uplifted many times over due to his true charisma and the spirit of reconciliation, which has earned him the status of world statesman. Pretoria has wisely used global goodwill spouting from Mandela’s aura to promote national development and attract investment in all fields. Apart from the much-heralded World Cup in 2010, Mandela also played a major role in bolstering South Africa’s international standing as part of the G-20 and the new power bloc known as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Through anti-apartheid political struggles and message of forgiveness, the first black South African president travelled the world and won accolades everywhere he touched down, bringing home international support and sympathy.
In a similar vein, Suu Kyi is rising. She is taking her charm and peaceful democratic struggle abroad, as an elected member of the Hluttaw, or parliament, with a week-long foreign trip – her first in 24 years – to Thailand and then on to Switzerland, Norway, the UK and Ireland.
Both Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein are scheduled to speak at the World Economic Forum for East Asia in Bangkok this week. Her informal visit to Thailand has a deep symbolic meaning as the countries share a 2,400-kilometre-long border, where many ethnic groups are based. Any successful reconciliation plan with minorities on the frontier would need Thai support.
Furthermore, Thein Sein and Suu Kyi’s appearance at the renowned economic forum would greatly augment the international community’s confidence in continued reform in Myanmar.
As long as the two still trust each other, the general goodwill towards this once pariah state will be maintained. Within a brief period, both have brought Myanmar into the regional and global community, although armed conflicts with ethnic groups and human rights violations continue.
After Bangkok, she will leave for an extended visit to Europe that would further raise her international profile. Apart from addressing the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, she is scheduled to attend a function hosted by the Nobel Peace Prize committee in Oslo on June 16, nearly 21 years after she was named as the winner in 1991.
At that time she was under house arrest and was unable to travel abroad. Then she will address the British Parliament, before making a brief visit to Ireland. As the first Asean politician to be a Nobel laureate, she provides much-needed impetus to democratic development and inspiration on the part of Asean members. Akin to democratic Indonesia, which successfully reinvented itself from the lowest common denominator to the group’s major driving force, value-added Suu Kyi would further boost Myanmar’s position in Asean as well as its reputation in the global community.
But to ensure the best outcome, Suu Kyi has to increase her own “connectivity” – to borrow the Asean jargon – with the Asean region and its 600 million citizens. For the time being, she has much in common with the norms and standards in the West. As time goes by, she will grow closer with the region, which once discarded her.
Ironically, Asean is exactly the kind of organization she could one day shape and influence. When Myanmar takes up the Asean chair in 2014, Naypyitaw and Suu Kyi can contribute to Asean openness and integration, if they so desire. Should her political future continue to blossom, she could become the country’s future leader, which would allow her to directly set the grouping’s agenda.
Eventually, she could become the most popular politician in Asean.
After her first meeting with Thein Sein last August, Asean lowered its guard and became more supportive of her democratic struggle. From 1990-2011, her relations with Asean and its leaders were nightmarish. Both sides avoided one another since the infamous aborted meeting in July 1995 between her and Yangon-based Asean diplomats. At the time, Asean gave in to Myanmar’s pressure – favouring the junta over a lone opposition leader.
In February this year, she held talks with Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of Asean, for the first time, breaking the ice of frozen ties. After the meeting, Surin was succinct in describing Suu Kyi and her role:
“She can energize the Myanmar body politic and also rejuvenate hope for all people of Asean, particularly the marginalised and the downtrodden. She is an icon of democracy for her people, and a beacon of hope for 600 million people of Asean and beyond!”
Since then, she has made more comments on Asean. When she met a group of Asean-based business leaders in February, she revealed her “simple ambition” of wanting to see Myanmar further developed and hopefully overtake some of the Asean members in the next 10 years. Her dream could come true if the reformation is irreversible along with the process of democratization, effectively ending all Western sanctions.
In retrospect, given her status and the political role she is playing now, some of the Asean leaders owed her an apology for making intimidating comments against her when she was under house arrest. Prior to her release, Asean leaders avoided meeting with her. The former Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai was the only Asean leader who refused to visit Myanmar during his premiership (1997-2000) because he was not allowed to see her. After 12 years, Chuan eventually met her in Yangon early this year.
Through thick and thin, Suu Kyi has manifested that she is a transformational leader in character, playing by the rules and following pacifist ways to win over her adversary. She is different from some power-hungry Southeast Asian leaders who go after economic growth as the only redemption for tight-fisted rule that often trumps human rights and democracy.
Whether the region is witnessing a new stewardship in Asean in the making will depend on her learning curve and ability to define her role beyond her country.
Of course, as the opposition leader, she must show first and foremost her ability to realize national reconciliation and bring well-being to her people and subsequently others in the region.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a specialist on Asean on Asian affairs.