Aung San Suu Kyi’s current visit to the US will no doubt inspire many both at home and abroad. It also marks an important turning point in her role in Burma’s rapidly changing politics. As she herself has noted, and as her growing cooperation with the government demonstrates, Suu Kyi is no longer a dissident, but a part of the system that she hopes to transform.
Even a few months ago, it was a very different story. When she traveled to Thailand in June, shortly after winning election to Parliament (and on her first trip outside Burma in more than two decades), Suu Kyi ruffled feathers in Naypyidaw by warning foreign governments and would-be investors to regard Burma’s apparent reforms with “cautious optimism.” And during a subsequent trip to Europe, she highlighted rampant corruption in Burma’s oil and gas industry, its chief source of foreign revenue.
This time, however, it seems clear that Suu Kyi has been careful not to send any messages jarringly at odds with those of the government. Indeed, it is likely that there has been some degree of coordination between the two sides, as Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein—who arrives in the US today for the start of his own visit—met twice last month.
This newfound harmony between government and opposition has not gone unnoticed. A third major political figure who is now traveling in the US, Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo, told reporters in Washington last week that Suu Kyi has been effectively “neutralized” by the government, and no longer speaks for the interests of Burma’s people.
“Opposition forces in the Parliament including Aung San Suu Kyi have been neutralized by the government by giving them posts in the Parliament,” said the leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, the party that won the second-largest number of seats in Burma’s 1990 election, but which boycotted the 2010 polls and did not run in by-elections in April of this year.
(Ironically, Hkun Htun Oo does not appear to fear that he will be similarly tainted by close association with the government, as he has accepted an invitation from Thein Sein to join him at this week’s UN General Assembly meeting in New York.)
Whether or not it’s fair to suggest that Suu Kyi’s more cooperative stance means that she has “sold out” to the government, it is clear that she and Thein Sein are increasingly on the same page on key issues—most notably, sanctions.
“I do not 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. We will need the help of our friends abroad, from all over the world. But in the end, we have to build our own democracy for ourselves,” she said last week.
These remarks will undoubtedly make it much easier for Thein Sein to continue to strengthen ties with the US, which has even reportedly engaged in discreet talks with Burmese armed forces officials about reestablishing military training and exchange programs.
More importantly, Suu Kyi’s words should make Thein Sein’s reformist agenda at home more likely to succeed. If she had stuck to her former position on sanctions, it would have played into the hands of hardliners. By suggesting that Burma has outgrown the need for sanctions, she has given the president’s reform efforts a much-needed boost.
Later, she was even more explicitly supportive of the president.
“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 at a ceremony attended by Aung Min, a minister in the President’s Office.
Aung Min, who expressed pride at Suu Kyi’s winning of the highest civilian honor in the US, later explained her evolving relationship with Thein Sein in these terms:
“The president alone cannot undertake all democratic reforms. I don’t think Daw Aung San Suu Kyi alone can accomplish everything either. But the president and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will have to work together.
“When you look at South Africa, Nelson Mandela alone could not have achieved what South Africa has managed to achieve. It was mainly because Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk, they worked together.”
Part of the challenge for Suu Kyi is not simply deciding how she can work together with Thein Sein, but also how she can avoid upstaging the mild-mannered former general.
Asked about this while visiting the UN headquarters in New York, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate 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.”
Suu Kyi the activist of the early 1990s is clearly a very different person from the Suu Kyi we’re seeing today. For some, this will be a source of some disappointment, especially among those who feel that she should be focusing more on Burma’s still-chronic human rights problems, especially in predominantly ethnic areas.
For others, however, it is a welcome sign that she is no longer attempting to solve Burma’s problems all at once, and is trying to find a practical path to reform that will ultimately benefit everyone. As she said to a student at Queens College in New York, “Dissidents can’t be dissidents forever; we are dissidents because we don’t want to be dissidents.”
Some hardcore dissidents shook their heads at this, but many Burmese were happy to see a more pragmatic and flexible Suu Kyi, who seems to be relishing the opportunity to participate in the political process after decades under lock and key.
Now that she is free, Suu Kyi seems to realize that she and her supporters are not alone in wanting to see Burma end its long era of oppression, poverty and isolation. She has found her de Klerk, and together they are doing their best to turn their win-win relationship into one that works for the whole country.