Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi, Has She Changed? – Analysis


By C. S. Kuppuswamy

“Suu Kyi is no longer a dissident, but part of a system that she hopes to transform”– Aung Saw (The Irrawaddy 24 September 2012).

The answer is perhaps yes and perhaps no.  The common perception is that she has changed from the political dissident and pro-democracy activist to put on the mantle of a suave diplomatic politician.  She said in a lecture at Harvard “I have always seen myself as a politician. What do you think I have been doing for the past 24 years”. Her views on so many current issues during her recent successful trip to US and thereafter substantiates this perception.  However it is rather harsh to indicate that she has “sold out” to the government as indicated by a Shan leader in the US.

Her views/ Comments:

The Kachin War

When in London in June 2012, she was questioned on the military offensive against the Kachins, she replied “We want to know what’s happening more clearly before condemn one party or the other”.

Reactions: The Kachin community was livid.  The Kachinland News website called her reply an “insult”.  An open letter by 23 Kachin groups worldwide said Suu Kyi was “condoning state-sanctioned violence (Special report by Andrew R. C. Marshall (Reuters) – 05 Oct. 2012).

President Thein Sein

“We must remember that the reform process was initiated by President Thein Sein.  I believe that he is keen on democratic reforms.  But how the executive goes about implementing these reforms is what we have to watch” Suu Kyi said in Washington as she received the Congressional Gold Medal (The Irrawaddy 24 September 2012).

“I do not know him well personally.  I’ve only met him in the line of work.  He is a quiet sort of a person and he weighs his words.  He obviously thinks before hand what he is going to say”– Suu Kyi’s interview to New York Times (Reproduced in Mizzima News 02 October 2012).

Political & Economic Reforms

“The eagerness to go ahead economically: I think the perception was that if you improve the economy, everything else would improve.  I don’t subscribe to that view, I think you need political reforms as well as economic reforms” – Suu Kyi in the interview to New York Times.


“I don’t think that we need to cling onto sanctions unnecessarily because I want our people to be responsible for their own destiny and not to depend too much on external props. We will need external help of our friends abroad, from all over the world. But in the end, we have to build our own democracy for ourselves” (The Irrawaddy 24 September 2012).


They want strong and colourful condemnation which I won’t do because I don’t think it helps.  If you condemn one community that makes the other community more hostile towards that community, not towards me.  People forget that when they condemn one community that community gets very resentful.  This has actually taken place in Rakhine” Suu Kyi in her interview to New York Times.

On NLD’s policy on the Rohingyas, she said “It is not a policy that has to be formulated by the NLD.  It is something that the whole country must be involved in.  It is not a party concern”.  (Special report by Andrew R. C. Marshall).

Tatmadaw and UN Commission of Inquiry

In an interview with CNN during her trip she admitted that she had a “soft spot” for Myanmar’s military (Tatmadaw), which was founded by her father Aung San.

“What we believe is not retributive justice but restorative justice.  Restorative justice did not mean putting junta members on trial” (Special report by Andrew R. C. Marshall)

Asked about a possible war crimes tribunal to look into human rights abuses by the generals she said some people would want that.  “I wouldn’t, but that’s me. I can’t speak for everybody.  There would be some who would but I don’t think they would be in the majority. Because the Burmese are pragmatic and we are not a particularly vengeful race”— Suu Kyi in her interview to the New York Times.

While questioned about reducing the reserved military quota of 25% seats in the parliament she said.  “We can only do this with the cooperation of the army itself.  So we have to work together.  There are some that would say how could we do that: the army would make sure that it would have this influence in the legislative, why would they let go.  But I think if they understand why it is not desirable for a democratic legislature to have so many seats reserved for a particular block, I think they’ll start thinking again.” (in her interview with the New York Times).

China-US relations with Myanmar

“I have to keep reminding people that before we had a military regime, when Burma was a  practising democracy, we had good relations with the US and with China, I don’t see why we should not continue “(in her interview to New York Times).

On becoming President

“As the leader of a political party, I have the courage to be President, if the people so wish” – Suu Kyi in a press conference on her return from US (The Irrawaddy – 8 October, 2012).

Comments: President Thein Sein, in an interview with the BBC’s Hard talk programme said “whether she will become a leader of the nation depends on the will of the people.  If the people accept her, then I will have to accept her.  There isn’t any problem between me and Aung San Suu Kyi.  We are working together’ (BBC News – 29 September 2012).

Constitutional Amendments

In the context of her disqualification for becoming a president under the 2008 Constitution she said “It means we need to amend the Constitution.  It is part of the parliamentary process.  We will keep pushing for it.  Not just for me, but for the country”.  (The Irrawaddy 08 October 2012).

Achieving Democracy

While questioned whether she has not upstaged Thein Sein during her visit to the US she said “I don’t think we should think about this in terms of personalities.  I think we should think about it as a common goal.  If we all want to achieve genuine democracy for Burma, we have to learn to work together and not think about our impact as personalities, either in our country or in the world at large “(The Irrawaddy 08 October 2012).

New Analysis

There is a definite change in her attitude – call it political expediency or pragmatism.

There is an unusually rising trend of criticism of her compromising attitude, ambiguous responses, silence on some critical issues and her soft corner for the military in the local as well as in the international media, particularly from the ethnic groups and the human rights activists.

She is fully aware of the central political role of the army and hence is seeking its cooperation in furtherance of her goals, particularly in amending the constitution.  The army cannot be wished away and it is hoped she does not listen to her thoughtless critics in her own group or other loyal supporters.  She needs them and any dilution of Army role can only be evolutionary as we see it in other countries similarly situated.

She is soft-pedalling on ethnic issues for fear of upsetting the administration in its peace moves, even at the risk of becoming unpopular with the ethnic groups.  This is unfortunate.  She is the only personality with some standing who could reach out to not only Kachins with whom the government is involved in a full scale war but to other important groups like the Shans.  For her ethnic reconciliation should be a top priority.

The success of President Thein Sein in his political and economic reforms is key to the country’s transition to democracy and hence she is supportive of his moves.  The urgent need is “capacity building”.  She is in a better position than others to look outside the country for support.

The period from now till 2015 is crucial and hence Suu Kyi has to play her cards to the best advantage of herself, the party and the country.  Suu Kyi is 67 and time is running out.  She needs all the support and has many hurdles to cross. Time she starts building a second line of leadership.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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