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.

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tocharian Wrote:
I'm sure I'm not the only person who is worried about the dominating influence and bullying behaviour of the Chinese in Burma (and elsewhere in the world). It goes way beyond any simple "friendly political ally" relationship. You should know. Even Than Shwe realizes that now!
Actually my point was more about the inconsistency of Suu Kyi's sanctions policy. As you can see from another article, Tayza easily bypassed these "sanctions" even in dealing with a country like Canada (where Suu Kyi is an honorary citizen!). By the way, resource-rich Canada is also full of Chinese "agents spies and rich businessmen"

Tom Tun Wrote:
Almost 4 years ago I saw one of the greatest political landscape changes in USA. I believe many people know what I am talking about. Obama gave hope to the people by giving some great speechs. How about today? Former President Bill Clinton wrote once, before he become president, he speak for imself but when he became president he speak what someone elese want him to speak. Will Aung San Suu Kyi be any different? Power, compromising, popularity, trust, faith are all double edge sword. I believe it will depend on how she use it. So far, I do not impress with ASSK preformance anymore. She should not spent her popularity like a drunken sailor.

Moe Aung Wrote:

Good to see your passionate Sinophobia is unabated. I'd say trust neither the West nor China, ASEAN, Japan, India, Russia, the two Koreas, the lot.

As Palmerston once famously said, "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."

It is smart to remain on good terms with everyone and make the most of it, and I doubt it if ASSK will ever go out of her way and ruffle Chinese feathers. She is already seen as far too cosy with the West tantamount to neglecting our own neighbors..

tocharian Wrote:
@KL I am not against sanctions as a means to pressure the government (so that Nay Shwe Thway Aung cannot study at Harvard or Oxford?), but it is totally a hypocritical double-standard from Suu Kyi not to demand exactly the same thing from China, Singapore, HongKong etc. that she demanded from the West (Nelson Mandela's problem was very different!). Sanctions only work if there are no leaks, but there were gaping smuggling leaks to China: gas, oil, jade timber, gold (even burmese girls?) etc., not to mention massive illegal immigration. Now that Suu Kyi is free she should take a clear stand against the overwhelming Chinese influence in Burma. Otherwise there will be no real change! One Burmese icon won't change China!

kerry Wrote:
She has never and cannot disappoint.

She is 65 and gave her life. Everything else is a bonus.

Thank you to an utterly brilliant woman, for the years of well-earned peace to come - once all this awful greed and dirty tricks and respurce/business salivating is over, and the prople of Burma can get on with rebuilding the great nation WHICH BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE!

SuuMaung Wrote:
Please analyze carefully but if you didn’t know their tricks, you wouldn’t notice. Now the whole country is very excited for upcoming BY-ELECTION and also thinks that Democracy is on the way. Actually not only the whole country, the whole world has been tricked too. This is a very sharp, smart, excellent plan. Now everyone has forgot about Than Shwe and the whole gang. Now they let the observers to see this election, it will be endorsed by those observers that it’s free & fair. Then after this By-Election, the sanctions will be lifted, and they are free to go. All their possessions/assets are being LEGALIZED. All those military junta and their cronies will be freed too. So what a smart plan!!! Can history be washed easily???
They are using Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s name & herself for this ONE purpose only.

SuuMaung Wrote:
Up coming by-election is not the ‘Election’, it’s only a ‘BY-ELECTION’. Seems like the United Nations, the United States & EU Countries are fallen under their game plan.
If you look carefully on how this junta drove into this situation. When they had election years ago, there was only one main party, USDP the military junta’s backed party. So they won landslide and have had more than 80% seats. This is very well smart plan and working very well so far. Now everything is stable, and they diverted Burmese people & the whole world on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD for only 42 seats of By-Election (they purposely used as ELECTION).

KL Wrote:
Diagree with tocharian. She stands on her non-violence principle and simply telling don't deal with wrong doing guys. Pointing finger to a woman under house arrest for greedy neighbors and stupidity of so-called country saver generals is unhealthy.

Moe Aung Wrote:
Couldn't agree more with the concluding paragraph.

Her father after some hesitation accepted the colonial govt's invitation to head the Executive Council, a de facto govt, months before his assassination in 1947. The difference is all she may get is an unimportant ministerial position, and assassination, both literal and character wise, has failed so far.

We shall see if she has feet made of clay up on the pedestal soon enough. If she is smart enough to muster the opposition MPs and not least the uniformed ones in and outside parliament there is a good deal of mileage in the nation's favor, even grab the bull by horns in the end.

The business class and the celebs see an opportunity to further their own agenda and obviously optimistic about her chances if not exactly backing the winning horse. However, if she takes the elitist approach and shows little faith in the masses (People Power) who have not lost it in her yet, this marks the first step down a slippery slope to the dustbin of history.

tocharian Wrote:
Suu Kyi's principles might be noble and honourable, but at the end of the day, history will judge her by the consequences of her decisions. Unknowingly, she helped China to "virtually" invade Burma through her insistence on sanctions by Western countries (she never publicly asked China or other Asian countries, like Singapore, to follow the same strict rules), China, Singapore, HongKong and countries like Korea, Thailand were able to get a monopoly on the natural resources of Burma. Moreover, China (together with North Korea and Russia) are the main suppliers of weapons for the military junta (and for the ethnic rebel armies!).

More Articles in This Section

bullet Fighting Corruption Begins at Home

bullet Future of Exiled Burmese Media

bullet How Much Freedom Does Burmese Media Enjoy?

bullet Five Days in Burma

bullet Turning Burma into Next Asian Tiger No Simple Task

bullet With Suu Kyi On Board, Is Burma Finally Moving Toward Real Change?

bullet The ‘Rule of Law’ in Burma

bullet New Doors are Opening in Burma

bullet A Good Beginning to the New Year

bullet Are There Cracks in Thein Sein's Cabinet?

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