Can Suu Kyi Lead?

By Aung Zaw 10 October 2012

Sixteen years ago, in a commentary I wrote for the Bangkokbased newspaper The Nation titled “The Trouble with Suu Kyi,” I committed a small act of heresy by suggesting that the revered leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement was not above criticism.

At the time, my opinions were seen by some as a betrayal of the cause that so many Burmese had embraced and dedicated their lives to. It wasn’t really that anybody thought Suu Kyi was perfect; but to point out her flaws was to give comfort to the hated regime that then ruled Burma with an iron fist.

Those days are over, and now it sometimes seems like it’s open season on Suu Kyi, even as she continues to be an object of adulation among ordinary Burmese and world leaders alike.

During her recent tour of the United States, Suu Kyi showed that she can still attract adoring crowds wherever she goes. But at the same time, she was also trailed by critics who noted that her stance on the burning ethnic issues of the day left a great deal to be desired.

As a Nobel Peace Prize winner and an international icon for democracy and human rights, many expected Suu Kyi to be more outspoken about the ongoing war in Kachin State and recent communal violence in Arakan State. In both places, lives have been lost, tens of thousands of people have been uprooted, basic rights have been brutally abused, and no workable solutions have been put forth.

Confronted with all of this, Suu Kyi merely said that she did not wish to complicate the government’s efforts to address these issues. On the Rohingya, a population of Muslims living in northern Arakan State, she wouldn’t even say if they should be considered citizens of Burma. Instead, she offered her by now standard response that only restoring the rule of law would bring any lasting answers to Burma’s problems.

People I met in Burma during my latest visit were also keenly aware of Suu Kyi’s efforts to avoid speaking out on the ethnic problems facing Burma. Many were disappointed that she did not clearly come out on the side of the Kachin, who have long supported her. But on the even more contentious issue of the status of Rohingya, most seemed to think she was wise not to say too much.

Ironically, Suu Kyi’s newfound reticence could be seen as a good thing. For decades, she was often faulted for putting principles before pragmatism. In 2010, for instance, she refused to take part in a junta-sponsored election because she knew it would be a sham.

But it isn’t just her sudden conversion to realpolitik that has surprised some observers. Many have noted that during her trip to the US, which coincided with a separate visit by President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi was careful to avoid sending any messages that would conflict with his. Once the perennial dissident, Suu Kyi is now not just playing ball with the government—she’s on the same team.

This is not to say, however, that Suu Kyi has suddenly abandoned all hope of leading the country herself. On the contrary, soon after her return, she said at a press conference: “As the leader of a political party, I have the courage to be president, if the people so wish.”

The trouble with this, of course, is that not withstanding Thein Sein’s endorsement of her eligibility for the presidency in an interview with the BBC, Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from being president because of her family ties to a foreign country. Her late husband, Michael Aris, was a British academic, and her two sons were both born in the UK.

But Suu Kyi is not one to be so easily deterred.

“It means we need to amend the Constitution,” she said. “It’s part of the parliamentary process. We will keep pushing for it. Not just for me, but for the country.”

But the Constitution is not the only obstacle to Suu Kyi becoming the leader of the nation. Another, more daunting, hurdle must also be cleared: her apparent inability to set her own house in order and provide genuine leadership within her own party.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party Suu Kyi helped found in 1988, has justifiably come under fire for its reputation for being little more than a club of Suu Kyi loyalists and its failure to reach out to other influential groups in Burmese society.

Despite its resounding victory in recent by-elections, winning 43 of 44 seats it contested, the NLD has so far failed to rise above the level of amateurish management, with poor public relations and even worse mechanisms for attracting and cultivating real political talent.

Many returning exiles and intellectuals complain that they have been kept at arms length from Suu Kyi, who is jealously guarded by those closest to her. Even members of the 88 Generation Students group who I spoke to showed some disappointment in this situation, although they all professed their respect and admiration for the Lady herself.

Some observers have ruefully remarked that even Than Shwe, the despised dictator who handed power over to Thein Sein last year, did a better job of choosing suitable subordinates to support his long-term goals. Suu Kyi, who will be 70 years old by the time Burma is ready to go to the polls again in 2015, has given no hint of who her political successor will be, and no one in her party stands out as a likely candidate.

There is little doubt that Suu Kyi still enjoys enormous support among Burma’s people, despite questions among some about her commitment to the country’s minorities. However, looking beyond the next few years, she needs to think not just about her own role in Burma’s future politics, but also that of a younger generation of would-be leaders.

One way or the other, Suu Kyi’s place in Burmese history is assured. But if she wants to leave a legacy of lasting stability, and not just an image of heroic self-sacrifice as a guide to future generations, she’s going to have to have to start tackling the problems of her country—and her party—head on.