Age Matters in Politics

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 19 June 2017

When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made her first speech to a large crowd at the foot of Shwedagon Pagoda on August 26, 1988, she was 43 years old. It marked the official day she entered what would become a long journey into Myanmar politics.

In her 29-year political career, she has founded Myanmar’s main and most popular political party—the National League for Democracy (NLD)—become one of the world’s most well known political prisoners, and served as an international pro-democracy icon.

Today, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the country’s de-facto leader, and has turned 72 years old. Universally, age matters in politics, but how it will play out specifically in Myanmar remains to be seen.

The ruling generals over the past decades have referred to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi derogatorily amongst themselves as kaung ma lay, which can interpreted as calling her a little “girl.”  They had never before had their monopoly on power confronted or challenged by a woman, or by someone so much younger than them.

When former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe assumed power from his predecessor Snr-Gen Saw Maung in 1992, he was just 57. Why then did Than Shwe decide to release his iron grip on Myanmar in 2011 and hand over power to his handpicked general, U Thein Sein? Many people speculate that his age played a role—he was 76 then—and that he had the longevity of the regime in mind.

Age might have mattered then and now. In 2012, when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi competed in the by-elections and earned a seat in Parliament, she too was 67. Perhaps Than Shwe and his deputy generals assumed that the “little girl” they had long mocked had developed greater political maturity over the past three decades, after three stints and fifteen years of experience of house arrest.

When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi became the State Counselor right after her NLD government took office at the end of March 2016, she was 71.

With that in mind, she must feel that there is not an extraordinary amount of time left for her to transform her country and achieve her goals.

This issue of time must be one of the key factors in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s prioritizing of those matters which she feels are most important for the country to change politically: reconciling with the military and restoring peace. Additional pressure comes from within, pushing to realize her aims for the country while she remains in good health.

Can Daw Aung San Suu Kyi manage to solve Myanmar’s main problems during the tenure of this administration, before the next election in 2020? She will be 75. It seems thus far to be an impossible mission. But as long as she remains strong well into her seventies, her millions of supporters will likely continue to see her as someone who will achieve their aspirations for the country in time.

As The Lady’s age advances, we must begin to look toward the next generation of government. Where are our younger potential leaders who can take responsibility for the unfinished duties of building the country?

Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition.