RANGOON — From the campaign trail to meetings with dignitaries to state dinners, Burma’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is under watchful eyes. Every move she makes is captured on-camera, each word painstakingly analyzed. Even her wardrobe, including her choices of color, design and accessory do not escape the gaze of admirers or critics.
Famous for her sense of traditional yet colorful Burmese fashion, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has served as a style icon of sorts since her release form house arrest in 2010—her signature look one of simple elegance. Unlike many other Burmese women who can also afford to do so, she rarely wears jewelry featuring gold or gemstones.
On Wednesday evening, the 71-year-old entered the function hall of the Myanmar Convention Center II in Naypyidaw to attend a dinner to commemorate the onset of the second session of the Union Peace Conference. The State Counselor was seen in a peach-toned blouse and a sarong. Jasmine and red roses were tucked into her hair, as it typically is when she appears in public.
But when pictures from the dinner of the State Counselor went viral on Facebook, it was her necklace that attracted the most attention. The piece was noticeably larger than other jewelry she had worn in the past, and was comprised of a set of jade stones.
“Normally, people wear amethyst against a peach-colored dress. But she used jade, creating something different and new,” said Myo Min Soe, a fashion designer from Mandalay, who added that the move might herald a renaissance in jade accessories. “If you looked at her last night, your attention would go directly to her necklace. Wearing oversized necklaces is trendy among middle-aged women now.”
Yet some netizens have expressed shame at seeing the State Counselor wearing jade—a stone harvested in Kachin State, where thousands remain in displaced people’s camps due to fighting between Burma Army and local ethnic armed group the Kachin Independence Army. The state is home to hugely profitable mines run by a network of ex-military elites, drug lords, and crony companies who illegally exploit the jade for tens of billions of dollars each year, while most of the local population lives in poverty.
One Facebook user shared photos of Daw Aung Suu Kyi in the jade necklace and wrote that despite finding the accessory stylish, “I can’t smile seeing her in this jade necklace.”
Another user complimented the necklace, but said, “whenever I think about jade, only hand-pickers pop up in my mind,” referring to thousands of men who risk their lives scavenging for stones from the waste of larger mining companies.
For all the criticism, only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi knows where the necklace came from, whether it was an expensive gift or an accessory fashioned out of cheap jade. At a press conference, she once told reporters that, when it comes to her appearance, she makes do with whatever is on hand.
People also commented on what they described as the inappropriate timing of the fashion statement. They raised questions about her sensibility for wearing jade to the dinner marking the beginning of the peace conference—to which KIA representatives were also invited. A peace agreement between the ethnic armed group and the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led government still has not been reached, and thousands displaced by conflict await a resolution.
For those living in IDP camps, the State Counselor’s choice in attire may seem insignificant; for many, the hope is that her wisdom, patience and collaboration with armed groups in conflict will finally allow them to return home.
The Irrawaddy reporter San Yamin Aung contributed to the reporting.