Aung San Suu Who?

Most everyone in Myanmar (the Buddhists at least) knows what day of the week they were born on; it defines where to light candles and pray at the pagoda and many believe it also defines something of their personality. Aung San Suu Kyi was born on a Tuesday. Which might make her honest.

In all my visits to Myanmar it has been clear that many, most, people had and have a special place in their hearts and minds for The Lady, as they called her when they dare not speak her name, and that many have seen and still see her as embodying all their hopes for a better future.

But this time around something is different. Her name used to be mentioned in a whisper. Now you can buy cheap tourist tat adorned with her picture.

The love used to seem unconditional. Now there are questions being asked about her conduct as a politician.

During her twenty or so years of partial and total imprisonment Daw Suu endured a most significant isolation and in enduring she earned an iconic status, inside and outside the country; her imprisonment represented the effective imprisonment of all the people of Myanmar by a government that denied them even their most basic human rights and that exploited the countries resources for their own benefit of themselves, their business cronies and their sponsor-countries.

Not until Aung San Suu Kyi was free could everyone else be free.

At the time of her release from house arrest in November 2010 I wrote elsewhere that, “I’m hoping that people do not see today’s great news as a problem solved and that there’s nothing more to do, because this is not a Mandela moment, this is not a short walk to freedom. There’s a long way further still to go.”

Freeing Aung San Suu Kyi did not set everyone else free. They still endure economic and social hardships and many are still denied even the most basic human rights..

Aung San Suu Kyi’s iconic status is a double-decked one, built upon the super-icon status of her martyred father Aung San, the man they said ‘stood down the British Empire’. Even almost seventy years after his death he remains a hero to many, his statues remain standing, his face adorns the walls of many homes as the Pope might do elsewhere and his personality cult drives t-shirt sales on the streets of Yangon.
Through talent, timing and not a little steel Aung San, a self-acknowledged war-time murderer, managed to fight the British alongside the Japanese as some sort of fascist, to switch sides, militarily and politically, with about six weeks to spare and to put himself in the boss seat when it came to negotiating Burma’s post-war status. He could have done with a bit more luck in the mix as he was assassinated by a former colleague, before independence came about and before being properly tested as the leader of a nation about to plunge into civil war. He was dead at thirty-two but his reputation as the nation-liberator-creator was already set in gold.

So when those protesting Ne Win’s government in 1990 needed a figure to rally around Aung San Suu Kyi, small and simply-spoken like her father was just the ticket. Everything she has become and achieved since has been as a result of her own endeavours but it was being her father’s daughter that gave her the opening, to her more a duty than an opportunity. Her English husband Michael Aris He described her as “obsessed” by the father she never knew, the man she called her “first and greatest love” despite being only two when he died. He always knew she would leave him for Burma should ever “my people need me”.

This inherited-from-her-father leadership and even her use of the phrase “my people” have felt (a touch regal but) valid before but Aung San Suu Kyi is a politician now, a politician with a general Election to win in 2015, and some very current political issues lead some to wonder just who ‘her’ people are.

She is Bamar and a Buddhist and looks primarily to Bamar Buddhists, who form the majority of the population, for her political support. The citizenship-less Bengali Muslim Rohingya of Rakhaine state are the most marginalised group in Myanmar and to speak out now in support of Rohingya citizenship or even to go so far as to criticise the conditions in the camps in which many are being forced to live – one described by the UNHCR as “more like a prison than a camp” – would be a challenge to the widely-held racist view of the Rohingya and to those who hold those racist views, her primary backers, the Bamar Buddhists.

Her father founded the army, the army imprisoned her, the army freed her, the army allowed her to enter politics and even if in civilian clothes the army still runs the country. Those who have swapped their uniform for a suit cannot or will not yet control those still in uniform as they use artillery and fighter jets in a hoped for final assault on ‘rebel’ bases in Kachin state and Aung San Suu Kyi offers no comment or criticism but does offer to help resolve the crisis.

“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.”

On Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4 Aung San Suu Kyi said she was “very fond of the army” and when pressed, just a little, about this ‘complex relationship’ with the Burmese military, whose atrocities she has campaigned against, she said had been taught that her father “was the father of the army and that all soldiers were his sons and therefore they were part of my family. It’s terrible what they’ve done and I don’t like what they’ve done at all, but if you love somebody I think you love her or him in spite of and not because of and you always look forward to a time when they will be able to redeem themselves,” she said.

Would someone less obsessed with a Dad so historically-significant, so nationalist, so militaristic, so opportunistic have a different view on the past deeds, future role and any need to make reparations of the military men who have made themselves and their cronies personally super-rich at the expense of the nation?

Would we have learnt a bit more had she been In The Psychiatrists’s Chair?

The Washington Post spoke to 83-year-old Win Tin, her former duty and himself a prisoner for 24 ?? years. He writes ‘a weekly column and broadcast a weekly radio show, using satire to mercilessly mock the government, the military and their business allies. And, as Suu Kyi charts a course of compromise with the army, he is also one of the few people in Burma who commands enough respect that he can criticize her and get away with it. “Some of us would like to push the military into the Bay of Bengal,” he said with a smile. “She only wants to push them into Kandawgyi Lake.’

She does speak of ‘negotiated compromise’ with the military and of ‘restorative justice’ rather than retribution (so the cronies get to keep their ill-gotten gains?) but all the time in the knowledge that if she is to become President following a General Election in 2015, which is her stated wish, the law will need to be changed because her having married a foreigner currently excludes her. Only the current ex-military and still military rulers can bring about this change.

And what of China? No-one who has spent more than a few minutes in Mandalay can underestimate the extent to which the Chinese economy holds sway over northern Myanmar. What was for a while a sleepy, dusty mega-village is these days more than ever a Chinese-boom-city with all the vital ingredients from child labour to a million motorcycles to foul tasting air – and it’s still a great place to visit for all that – such that one resident said to me, “our country is a second Tibet.”

In accepting from the President the role of chairing a commission looking into a highly contentious part military-owned, Chinese-backed copper mine and processing facility near Monywa and how the authorities responded to protests against it (including using incendiary weapons of some sort – possibly containing phosphorous) she picked up a poisoned chalice indeed. Her commission reported six weeks late and while it did criticise the police, suggesting improved riot training (are we to expect more riots?) there was no suggestion that the project should be stopped which had been the hope of local people who are now most upset with Daw Suu. The report, while recommending some mitigations, said that to stop the project would ‘damage relations with China’ and ‘put off foreign investors’.

There are other criticisms doing the rounds too. The National League for Democracy, the party she leads is said to be in disarray, resorting to accepting donations from cronies which she justifies on a ‘needs-must’ basis. Last week they held their first congress. Formed as a movement not a party, the NLD is a party now. But how democratic a party? Tory style, as leader, Aung San Suu Kyi appoints the executive herself with delegates assenting not by vote but by shouting “We agree!”. Many hoped for new blood at the top of the party but while she has sought to be inclusive of some ethnic minorities and women, the average age of the executive is over 60. Aung San Suu Kyi is 67.

I read that no-one in the party dare speak out in front of Aung San Suu Kyi, not through intimidation but through admiration. Either way that’s no good thing. She has previously made decisions – on sanctions and on tourism for example – that some of her closest colleagues disagreed with because they thought they hurt the people more than they helped them, decisions which split the movement and alienated some of her supporters.

She starts to sound a bit out of touch when she keeps talking of ‘Burma’ in a Myanmar where over half the population are under 25 and have never, officially, lived in Burma. And at the western-aesthete-heavy Irrawaddy Literature Festival last month she launched an appeal for a library (of books) in every village starting with the 128 villages in her own constituency when surely free wifi and computers to use it with would be so much more useful. The super-bright child will then have access to every book in the world, not just those going rainy-season-mouldy in a local library and the rest will be able to play network war games with faster download and refresh speeds.

But the symbolism and societal impact of Aung San Suu Kyi entering the world of politics and taking a seat in parliament in April 2012 should not be underestimated; it changed the mood of the nation. A law-change permitting, and given the absence of any other serious candidate prepared to risk political capital challenging her, she will become President of a fully democratic Myanmar (with perhaps as big a test to face as that which her father would have faced had he lived longer). There is a sense in which it has to happen. That the country cannot start looking for new heroes just yet. That the Aung Sans must first have their day.

As an incarcerated icon her power grew and grew and the sense of what her liberation would mean grew with it. Switching prison for politics may have diminished her slightly and maybe that’s for the good. Maybe she is more comfortable with the way things are now. She is on the record saying that she never wanted a personality cult of her own and things were heading that way. Now she is being criticised and is accepting of protest “even outside my home”. That’s what democracy looks like after all.

Maybe she wants people to get a sense of perspective about her and what she can do for them. Maybe she is managing expectations right now. In response to criticism of her copper mine work she said, “I have never done anything just for popularity. Sometimes politicians have to do things that people dislike.”.

But even with my expectations managed-down l still hope that all the silence and compromise is the work of a master political tactician, truly her father’s daughter, and that she has a program of radical and inclusive reform tucked down the back of her htamain.

And I hope that this is the platform on which she will, openly and Tuesday-born-honestly, campaign, persuade and seek to get elected in 2015.

And if that willingness to do things people dislike goes so far as to include citizenship for the Rohingya, then I wish she would say so soon.

Aung San Suu Kyi on BBC R4’s Desert Island Discs 1.2.13
Jonathan Head on BBC R4’s From Our Own Correspondent on 16.3.13

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