Suu Kyi Shines, But Party's PR Machine Stumbles

By Nyein Nyein 1 June 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi’s first trip abroad in more than two decades has attracted intense international interest, but also a certain amount of criticism of her party’s handling of an event that should have been an unmitigated triumph.

While few in the media would deny that Suu Kyi’s trip to Thailand has been the photo opportunity of a lifetime, many say that it also showed a weak understanding on the part of her National League for Democracy (NLD) of the need to cooperate with the press.

Some of this frustration seeped through in an article by Thomas Fuller of The New York Times, who noted earlier this week that planning for Suu Kyi’s visit “appears to have been an afterthought” and euphemistically described Suu Kyi’s style as “spontaneous.”

Although some media managed to capture the moment Suu Kyi set foot on foreign soil for the first time in 24 years, the time of her arrival at Bangkok’s international airport on Tuesday night was a mystery to most, because no one at the NLD’s headquarters in Rangoon was available to confirm it.

Responding to criticism of the party’s apparent lack of coordination, NLD spokesperson Ohn Kyaing explained that the problem stemmed largely from a lack of access to modern tools of communication.

“We hope that the international media understands that we don’t have all the high-tech gadgets,” said Ohn Kyaing, speaking to The Irrawaddy by phone from Rangoon on Friday. “Our headquarters doesn’t even have contact with [Suu Kyi and her team in Thailand] right now.”

“We need to discuss this before for her future trips and find some way to improve the situation,” he added.

Even days after her arrival, however, there is still a certain amount of confusion surrounding Suu Kyi’s itinerary. After two trips to Mahachai, an area on the outskirts of Bangkok that is home to thousands of Burmese migrant workers, and today’s attendance at the World Economic Forum on East Asia, she is expected to visit refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border on Saturday.

The details of this trip, however, are unclear. Her head of security, Khun Thar Myint, has not been available for comment on who she will meet when she travels to Mae Sot, a border town that is host to a number of dissident organizations. Only her visits to Mae La, the largest camp, and Dr. Cynthia’s clinic have been confirmed.

According to Ohn Kyaing, the NLD has an information department, but none of its members accompanied Suu Kyi on this trip, and even executive members of the NLD have not been fully informed of the arrangements made for her.

Ohn Kyaing added that this is not the first time that the media has expressed dissatisfaction with the NLD. He said that when Suu Kyi met with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak last month, only reporters from four journals were invited to cover the event. But, he explained, this arrangement—which caused some friction between the party and journalists who were unable to attend—was made by the Burmese government and South Korean security officials, not the NLD.

There was also another incident last month that provoked a great deal of discussion about the NLD’s relations with the media. In the first week of May, an altercation took place between an NLD security officer and a journalist who tried to take a photograph of Suu Kyi during her visit to the Shwe Min Thar Foundation for the disabled.

Both sides accused the other of starting the incident, which led to a formal letter of complaint being sent to the NLD by the journalist. “It needs further investigation, as they both said they were assaulted first,” said Ohn Kyaing.

Win Tin, a veteran journalist and respected leader of the party, said he agrees with critics who say that the NLD is not sufficiently media-friendly. In a recent interview with VOA, he said he has often had to remind fellow party members, including a former spokesperson, “to treat the media well and not think of it as an enemy.”

“The NLD should review the criticism and evaluate it,” said respected veteran journalist Maung Wuntha. “If the criticism helps the NLD improve, the party should not ignore it.”

Win Tin went further. “The media must criticize the NLD,” he said, if the party is to grow stronger.