COMMENTARY
Sizing Up an Icon
By NEIL LAWRENCE Wednesday, March 21, 2012

With just a week and a half to go before Burma's by-elections, this may be a good time to ask what the country expects of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's iconic pro-democracy leader, and whether she can live up to these expectations.

Judging from the ecstatic crowds that have greeted her on her campaign travels around the country, it would seem that Suu Kyi still embodies the hopes of the majority of Burmese, even after long years of isolation and limited success in breaking the military's hold on power. But what precisely are these hopes, and why do people think that Suu Kyi can fulfill them?

In a deeply impoverished country like Burma, it's safe to assume that the first priority for most is lifting living standards. But Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have often been criticized for failing to formulate concrete economic policies, and even during the current campaign, they have offered few specific proposals.

This doesn't, however, appear to have translated into any serious misgivings about Suu Kyi's candidacy in the coming by-elections, even among members of the business community. This may simply be due to an assumption that a formal role for Suu Kyi in Burmese politics will not only lead to an easing of sanctions, but could also attract more investment and development aid.

But is it realistic to think that a seat in Parliament for Suu Kyi will suffice to instill confidence in Burma's economy? Clearly, she and her party need to offer more than just vows to restore rule of law—as important as that is to putting the economy on a firm footing—if Burma is to finally catch up with most of its neighbors.

Fortunately, Suu Kyi has, at least in private, demonstrated a firm grasp of the issues that need to be addressed to improve Burma's economic prospects. “You don’t need to dim the headlights in talking to her,” said Australian economist Sean Turnell following a recent meeting with Suu Kyi. The only question, then, is whether she will be able to turn this understanding into workable policies.

Obviously, however, Suu Kyi is not running on her strengths as a policy wonk. Her appeal derives more from her ability to convey a clear message that resonates with everyone from ordinary Burmese citizens to foreign heads of state. The trouble is that she has been much less successful in communicating with senior military leaders and other members of the Burmese ruling elite—the very people she will have to work with closely in the future.

The fact that she has been able to forge reasonably amicable relations with President Thein Sein and Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann is encouraging, but probably provides no guide to how she will fare when she is surrounded by members of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Even if, as some have suggested, she is given a cabinet position, she is sure to face stiff resistance from a party that in a previous incarnation (as a “mass organization” created by former dictator Than Shwe) was dedicated to destroying the NLD.

There is a danger, in fact, that dealing with the USDP could prove not only frustrating, but also damaging in the long run. To achieve her stated goals—which include amending the Constitution and reaching a lasting political settlement with Burma's ethnic minorities—Suu Kyi will probably have to meet the ruling party at least halfway on some issues. Too much cooperation, however, could tarnish her image as a democratic icon.

In this case, the fact that the NLD's presence in Parliament will be very small (the party is contesting just 47 of the 48 seats now up for grabs—less than a tenth of the total of elected seats in both houses) could actually work in its favor. Given the overwhelming odds against them, Suu Kyi and her colleagues won't be expected to get their own proposals passed, but they will be able to raise issues that could set the agenda for nationwide elections in 2015, when they can mount a serious challenge to the USDP's supremacy.

The success of such a strategy would depend, however, on the NLD maintaining its current levels of popular support. That may be more difficult than it seems. Even if Suu Kyi isn't forced to compromise with the USDP (and thereby compromise her own status), her transformation from voice of the people to ordinary politician could weaken her hold on the popular imagination.

At the moment, Suu Kyi's stature as a political figure is unrivaled. Internationally, world leaders speak of her with great admiration, and in Burma, celebrities clamor to offer their support and have their photos taken with her so they can post them on Facebook. But one of the perils of public life is that perceptions change, and even the most revered figures can wilt after too long in the spotlight.

If Suu Kyi has demonstrated one thing, however, it is that she has staying power. It's worth remembering that until her release from house arrest in November 2010, many “experts” on Burmese politics had written her off as yesterday's woman. It only took her appearance at the gate of her home after seven years in seclusion to revive hopes that had been all but killed the week before, when the USDP stole an election widely denounced as anything but free and fair.

In retrospect, we can say that that moment marked the beginning of the end of the first phase of Suu Kyi's political life and leadership. After the April 1 election, assuming she is permitted to win, she will enter the second phase, when she will no longer be the sainted keeper of the flame of Burma's democratic aspirations, but an active participant in the rough and tumble world of real-life politics.

Will she disappoint? To some extent, it seems inevitable that she will. But most Burmese realize what is at stake, and know that she and her party are their country's best hope of moving forward. That, and the permanent place she has already earned in the hearts of her compatriots and admirers around the world, should make it easier for her to lead, even within a system stacked against her.

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