By Billy Tea
In November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, was set free by the Thein Sein administration. Since then, her party went on to win 43 out of 45 seats in the April 2012 elections, making them the official second major party in the government. While this overwhelming victory is a large indicator of Suu Kyi’s popularity, it also reflects the Thein Sein government’s reforms 1.
Suu Kyi has shown great quality as an opposition leader, managing to become a symbol of freedom and democracy during her years of house arrest. However, it does not mean that she will be a good fit as president for the country. As president, she’d have to manage more than 135 groups that are strongly divided along ethnic and religious boundaries. Failure to do so could mean the destruction of her reputation as a leader for unity. It would also require her to make hard decisions that could possibly go against her current political and religious practices, weakening her following as a result.
As an opposition leader, she has a strong background and rich history of supporting her party: First, she represents the legacy of the beloved national hero Aung San. Her father is considered the founder of modern day Burma, having led the drive for Burmese autonomy. He drafted the new constitution known as the Panglong Agreement that ended the British Colonial era officially in 1948, but was assassinated before its passing on July 19, 1947. That day is now remembered as Martyr’s Day, a commemoration of General Aung San’s death and his interim government. His sudden death made him a symbol of Burma’s fight for freedom and he became respected by all ethnic groups.
Suu Kyi has followed in her father’s footsteps by making her first public appearance, the one that brought her to the opposition’s leadership in Aug. 26, 1988, in front of Shwedagon Pagoda. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda for the Burmese with relics of the past four Buddhas enshrined within. It is also in the same place that her father made a fiery pro-independece speech in 1946.
Second, she has also demonstrated her commitment to democracy and earned her right to her reputation. Since joining the opposition movement, she has sacrificed being with her family and her own freedom for her country. Out of the last 20 years, she spent 14 of them under house arrest. And although she had the choice to leave the country and to be with her family, she stayed, knowing she’d never be able to reenter the territory otherwise. When asked about it, she responded “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 person2.”
Third, Aung San Suu Kyi has always preached non-violence and democracy. During her years of house arrest, her discourse has always supported peace and rejected violence as a means for change. In an interview with Alan Clements in 1996, a Buddhist monk turned writer/activist, Aung San Suu Kyi described her views on non-violence movement: 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.” According to Nyan Win, the spokesman for the National League for Democracy “She has remained a devoted Buddhist who from the beginning admired the principles on non-violence and civil disobedience espoused by India’s Mahatma Gandhi3. 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.
Like her father, Suu Kyi represents opposition to the military Junta and supports the causes of ethnic minorities. She was named the “Lady” for her ability to appease the ethnic groups with her non-violent rhetoric and for standing against the grave human rights violation of the military Junta. People have great hope in her, which would put tremendous pressure on her to perform, if she was elected president.
In the case that Suu Kyi wins the presidency, she will face obstacles that include satisfying a large multi-ethnic and divided population, in addition to working with a parliament that is 25 percent military. Instead of being the opposition, she will become part of the government and will have to make hard choices. She will be subjected to criticisms from native and international communities, which could possibly damage her reputation and quickly weaken her support.
Part of the problem is that she will be asked to side on conflicts and issues, and will have to convince people that her decisions are the right ones. Suu Kyi has already received strong criticism regarding her lack of position on the conflict in the Arakan state involving the 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 Arakan issue], they want strong and colorful condemnation, which I won’t do, because I don’t think it helps.” She has also 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 believes that the best answer would be to have a solution based on a rule of law that would promote ethnic reconciliation, “It must be based on sound citizenship laws4.”
Her reaction, or lack thereof, has sparked wide criticism within her own supporters. Neng Seng, a Kachin human rights activist wrote in the Huffington Post an article called “I Feel Betrayed by Aung San Suu Kyi,” in which she describes her frustration and disappointment over the lack of action by her idol. “She [Aung San 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 sad5.” Meanwhile, the Irrawaddy, one of Myanmar’s liberal magazines, states “As long as Suu Kyi continues to avoid taking any meaningful stance on the very real issues that plague Burma, the ‘democratically united’ country that she spoke of in her speech will remain as elusive as ever6.”
As an elected leader, Suu Kyi will be unable to appease every person in the country. She will have to make tough choices with a limited budget, undeveloped infrastructures, restricted capacity, and ethnic division. Like any political system, there will be disagreement within her own party. For some she will be too liberal, for others she won’t be doing enough. A democracy is one in which people express their ideas, and people have many different views. For the military, it isn’t a problem, because “they” are somewhat used to not being liked. But the popular Suu Kyi has much to lose if she cannot please each and every person in Myanmar, and that is simply impossible.
A final obstacle comes in the form of pride and jealousy. It should be remembered that Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was killed by a political rival and former Prime Minister of Burma, U Saw. It was Aung San’s popularity and worldwide recognition for his leadership in ending colonialism in Burma that ultimately led to his death. Recognition for the great advances within the country are still felt in Myanmar, which produces competition and jealousy within both the military and opposition party.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a great person and has gained the respect of the world community, but will she be able to achieve the same recognition as a leader of Myanmar if she is elected in 2015? She faces major obstacles in her transition from political icon and symbol of freedom to political personality – it is only in the next two years that we will see how she manages her image, and then we will see if she has the potential to lead a fast changing Myanmar.
About the author: Billy Tea
Mr. Billy Tea is a Research Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS, where he focuses on security issues in South East Asia and maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region. He was formerly an Analyst with the Foreign Policy and Security Studies Bureau at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia, where his research focused on conflict prevention, conflict management, and regional cooperation; Chinese foreign policy in Asia; and security and defense relations among the US, Asia, and Europe. Prior to joining ISIS Malaysia, he was a Researcher at the Political Section of the European Union Delegation and at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) in New Delhi, India.
Mr. Tea has written policy papers and articles on maritime cooperation initiatives, Myanmar’s politico-economic transition, the implications of China’s rise, China and India’s relations with Southeast Asia, and the war in Afghanistan.
In 2007, he volunteered at the Thai-Myanmar border working with refugees, during which he experienced the spill-over effects of civil war which pushed him to graduate from King’s College London with an MA in War Studies. Mr. Tea also graduated with Magna Cum Laude from Umass Amherst with a BA in Political Science.