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Christian Caryl

Her Work Isn’t Done

This week the world is celebrating Aung San Suu Kyi’s achievements as a pro-democracy activist. Now the question is: Can she finish the job?


The West is celebrating Aung San Suu Kyi this week. The Burmese pro-democracy activist, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), has been giving speeches and receiving honors. She stopped in Oslo to pick up a belated Nobel Prize, awarded to her in absentia in 1991, when she was just beginning her long stint in house arrest. (All in all she’s spent some 15 years of the past 24 in detention.) On her swing through Ireland she received prestigious awards from Amnesty International and the city of Dublin. The audience at the London School of Economics serenaded her with "Happy Birthday" on her visit there. (She has just turned 67.) On Thursday she’s giving a speech to both houses of the British parliament, a privilege granted only rarely to non-Britons.

If anyone deserves such accolades, it’s her. Despite years of vicious treatment meted out by Burma’s generals, the Lady — as the Burmese often refer to her — stuck doggedly to her commitment on non-violence and pressed her demands for greater freedom for her people. The military government repeatedly urged her to go back to Britain to be with her husband and two sons there — offers she resolutely rejected, knowing that the authorities would probably never allow her to return. She has calmly defied soldiers who leveled their guns at her and she has survived at least one overt assassination attempt. She is, without question, a brilliant moral exemplar, a member of the same family tree that includes names like Gandhi, King, Mandela, Sakharov, and Havel.

And yet there is a distinctly valedictory note to all the fanfare on this trip. Her European tour is a story of honors long and unjustly deferred. At each point along the way another circle closes, another bit of unfinished business is checked off the list. Her visit to Britain includes a long-awaited reunion in Oxford with members of her extended family. This is sure to be a bittersweet occasion.

We in the West are right to celebrate her past achievements. But in one way the rejoicing is a bit premature. The stark fact is that her native country is still a long way from achieving the democracy of which she and her colleagues have dreamed of for so many decades.

Burma has only just begun a slow and methodical transition that may or may not end up in the promised land of liberal democracy. Last year, President Thein Sein, an ex-member of the ruling junta, launched a program of tentative liberalization that has included a softening of censorship, legalization of trade unions, and freedom for hundreds of high-profile political prisoners.

That process of opening culminated on April 1 with a parliamentary by-election in which Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 of her NLD colleagues won almost all of the seats at stake. Unfortunately, that was merely a fraction of the overall seats in the national assembly, so the freshly elected NLD members are outnumbered by the government’s proxies to the tune of 15 to 1. Thein Sein’s reform moves can’t disguise the fact that Burma is still under the control of the same old elite.

So can Aung San Suu Kyi actually change anything in her country? Now that she’s in parliament, she can presumably leverage her enormous popularity among the Burmese people to push for proper reforms — starting with the present constitution, which was drawn up under military supervision in a process denounced by many observers as a sham. She has made changing it one of her priorities.

Considering, however, that the constitution has been carefully designed to tilt the balance of power in parliament in the military’s favor, that could be an uphill climb. She could, perhaps, beat the odds by finding and cultivating allies among the pro-government factions in parliament. Or she could try to shape the agenda by proposing specific reform bills that enjoy grassroots support — easier said than done, given the current restrictions. One thing is sure: She will need all of her political skills in order to negotiate the challenges yet to come.

Such challenges no longer belong to the realm of a clear-cut struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The path ahead is likely to involve many a messy compromise. This is the realm of realpolitik, not heroic moral crusades. And that is terrain in which she has, as yet, strikingly little experience.

For example, the Lady and her NLD colleagues at first refused to take the oath of office to the constitution, which they denounced as illegitimate. Undoubtedly true — but then why take part in an election based on its rules? As it happens, there are many precedents in which political players have sworn fealty to a constitution and then proceeded to amend or revise it. The NLD newcomers ended up taking the oath anyway.

More recently, she has repeatedly warned potential investors against putting their money into her country (particularly in industries dominated by cronies of the military). This is consistent, perhaps, with her long-held policy of dissuading tourism to Burma on the grounds that foreign visitors were merely bolstering regime-friendly businesses. Clinging to such an uncompromising policy may be hard to sell to the voters back at home who are desperate for jobs.

She faces similar dilemmas in her dealings with the elite in her own country. Burma’s tycoons, who got where they are by cultivating their own ties to corrupt generals, have been making overtures to the NLD leader. They could be potent allies in any push for greater political participation — and formidable obstacles to true reform of the country’s crony-ridden economy.

And what about the generals themselves? What sort of assurances should she be prepared to offer in return for progress toward democratization? Are they even willing to tolerate genuine democracy? Or do they see the NLD presence in parliament merely as a fig leaf for a Malaysian-style version of authoritarian modernization? Good luck prodding them toward the exit.

Her recent statements on the ethnic violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the province of Arakan, which has left dozens dead, suggest that she’s aware of the tightrope she must walk. She could have assumed a stark moral stance by denouncing the ethnic Burman majority’s pogroms against the stateless Rohingya minority, but that unpopular position would have eroded her support in the Burmese heartland, so in the end she opted for vague language about the need to change Burma’s citizenship laws. However you slice it, this wasn’t exactly the stuff of Mandela.

The next general election is three years away, by which time she’ll be 70. The intervening period will show whether the Lady has the political flexibility and the strategic acumen to maneuver her country into the safe harbor of democracy — or whether her greatest achievements already lie behind her.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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