Sat 9 Mar 2013
Filed under: DASSK,Inside Burma,News
She endured years of house arrest and was steadfast as her political movement was decimated and her colleagues were tortured. But now, as the leader of Myanmar’s opposition in Parliament, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate, is courting her former jailers.
With Myanmar sloughing off the legacy of five decades of brutal military dictatorship, the country is witnessing a political minuet between the army and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the human rights champion turned politician who is fighting to keep her disorganized and fractious political party relevant — and her path to the presidency open.
To her critics, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s compromises are tarnishing her status as a near saint.
She has been quiet about the military’s bloody campaign against an armed ethnic minority group and recently went so far as to say she was “very fond” of the military, rattling some of her extremely loyal party members.
The remarks were tied to the army’s role in liberating the country from colonial rule, but the timing, coming as the military was pounding the rebels with airstrikes, rankled supporters who were under military rule for decades.
“To the outside world, nothing has really changed with her; she is Suu Kyi and all the beautiful things that go with it,” said Josef Silverstein, an expert in Burmese politics and professor emeritus at Rutgers. But “she is essentially making herself irrelevant. We have not heard Suu Kyi talk as Suu Kyi.”
Making the transition from dissident to politician was never going to be easy in an impoverished country perennially divided by ethnic conflict. The path from icon to leader, successfully navigated by Nelson Mandela of South Africa and few others, is fraught in a country like Myanmar, which fought a civil war in 1948 that lives on in ethnic insurgencies and allowed the military an outsize role that still continues.
The reverence for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi inside Myanmar is difficult to overstate. Her sacrifices for her country are legend: she chose to stay in Myanmar even as her husband was dying abroad, fearing the military leaders who kept her under arrest would not allow her to return to her struggling nation. Her grace under duress helped win her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, which she was only able to pick up last year after the generals decided to begin a shift to democracy.
But the adulation for her has set a particularly high standard, and her stature has intimidated members of her party from challenging her views. Even party members say their National League for Democracy is in disarray — suffering from an array of problems including what one called a “leadership vacuum” in the middle ranks. The party is holding its first-ever national congress this weekend.
“Nobody dares to speak out in front of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and that is a very bad thing,” said U Win Tin, a senior party member. “It’s not out of fear; it’s out of admiration.”
Supporters note that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is making a careful calculation in allying with the former generals who run the country. The political reality is that the military still wields enormous power. The military and the ruling party formed by the military together control the vast majority of seats in Parliament, and the military retains extensive business interests.
“I don’t like the army,” said U Kyi Win, a former political prisoner who is now a delegate at the party congress. “But for the future of our country, we have to work with them. We cannot have democracy without the involvement of the military.”
The changes in the country have been highly personalized, dependent on a good working relationship between the former general who runs the country, U Thein Sein, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi.
“I think she needs to be credited as a stabilizing force and as someone willing to view former adversaries as partners for the common good,” said David Steinberg, an expert on Myanmar at Georgetown University.
Working with the military is more than a political calculus; it is also in her blood. Her father, Aung San, who was assassinated when she was 2 years old, was the founder of the modern Burmese Army.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi defends her current relationship with the military, saying that she wants to pursue “negotiated compromise” and that retribution will not serve the country well. She argues instead for “restorative justice” — addressing what ails the country instead of meting out punishment for the sins of the past.
But representatives of minority groups say that should not preclude her being more active in trying to achieve national unity. They have criticized her for refusing to spend at least some political capital to help solve the conflict between Kachin rebels and the Myanmar Army, even as it grew particularly bloody in December and January. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi said in January it was not the purview of her committee in Parliament.
Some of her harshest critics say her refusal to take on the military establishment is all about politics, and her ambitions for higher office. “She’s only thinking about becoming president of Burma,” said Pu Zo Zam, a leading voice of the country’s minority groups, using the name for the country preferred by many in the opposition. “She was a national hero for us. Now she’s only talking on behalf of her party.”
Party officials acknowledge that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi needs the army’s support to change a rule in the Constitution that bars anyone with a foreign spouse from becoming president. Her husband was British.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 67, said recently that she would be open to the job of the presidency “if that is what the people want.” Many see the next elections, scheduled for 2015, as the last chance for her to run.
There appears to be consensus among analysts that she would have a very strong chance of winning: outside ethnic minority areas, her popularity still verges on adoration.
But some party officials are visibly uneasy when explaining the new approach to the military.
“It’s truly very risky,” said U Monywa Aung Shin, a top party official from central Myanmar. “The people and party members are asking many questions about her strategy.”
Mr. Monywa Aung Shin said he mostly agrees with those who say the party has “no choice” but to seek accommodations with the army. But he spent 12 years in prison under military rule and winces when he talks about the “new strategy.” He said he was only “75 percent sure” that it was the best way forward.
There are also some outright dissenters in the party.
Mr. Win Tin said the army should “admit what they have done in the past.”
“I don’t accept the army’s leading role in politics,” he said.
Myanmar’s citizens are following the political maneuverings like spectators at a high-stakes chess match, one move at a time.
“Burmese politics is power politics,” said Min Min Oo, a member of the National League for Democracy from western Myanmar. “The role of the military is essential.”
The context for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi today is that after years of persecution, her party is in disarray. Mr. Monywa Aung Shin called it a “laughingstock.”
The party lacks talented managers, is rived by infighting and factionalism, and is nearly broke.
In recent months, the party has raised money for charitable causes from prominent businessmen who during the years of military rule were known as “cronies” because they helped implement the junta’s projects in return for favors. The move raised concerns in part because Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi often talks about responsible investment.
But party officials say they are desperate.
“For the time being,” Mr. Kyi Win said, “we need to accept help from anyone.”