Suu Kyi on the Stump: Mixing Pragmatism with Populism

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 14 October 2015

Through various campaign speeches in recent weeks, the leader of Burma’s main opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi, has demonstrated that she is the only politician in the country that can engage a large majority of Burmese voters.

Her ability to tap into the hopes and desires of the electorate is a strength that should stand her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in good stead ahead of the Nov. 8 poll.

Once again, over the past weekend, the opposition leader attracted thousands of enthusiastic supporters during rallies in Hmawbi and Taik Gyi on the outskirts of Rangoon.

In Burma’s recent history, no other political leader could so effortlessly command such popular support, whether in the sizzling sun or the monsoon rain.

For journalists, we are always listening intently to see whether the 70-year-old pro-democracy figure will say something new or unusual on the campaign trail. As the speeches roll on, more than one journalist may have criticized The Lady for repeating well-worn phrases and even lapsing into clichés.

Some foreign observers tend to pay particular attention as to whether Suu Kyi will address controversial issues, such as the plight of the Rohingya. Indeed, the opposition leader has worn a great deal of flak for her perceived silence on this and other issues.

However, what many overlook when analyzing Suu Kyi’s stump speeches is her ability to relate to mainstream voters and understand their concerns—a vital attribute for any politician.

In recent months, Suu Kyi has embarked on whirlwind trips to Shan, Kachin and Karenni states as well as various locales in central Burma. With the general election less than four weeks away, the NLD leader has further plans to hit the road, with a trip to Burma’s western Arakan State scheduled this weekend.

Everywhere Suu Kyi goes, huge crowds follow.

Her supporters appear drawn from all walks of life, from trishaw drivers to street vendors, laborers and civil servants; even former and serving soldiers have been spotted at Suu Kyi’s rallies.

Large rallies were also convened by the Union Solidarity and Development Association, the forerunner to the Union Solidarity and Development Party, in the past, but with one major difference: attendees were often forced to join or induced to do so.

In recent months, President Thein Sein has also traveled widely, as faithfully documented almost daily in state-run media. These trips, where the president is often portrayed as smoothing development projects or dispensing aid, lack the rapturous crowds familiar to Suu Kyi’s rallies.

At an NLD rally on Saturday in Hmawbi, a garrison town on the northern outskirts of Rangoon, one elderly local woman told The Irrawaddy of Suu Kyi: “I came here to listen to what she says and to support her party.”

Her words were deceptively simple but contained a key kernel of truth: NLD supporters truly listen to The Lady.

‘We Dare to Take Responsibility’

In her speech, Suu Kyi referred to a fundamental campaign message: the NLD is the only party that can change a political system that for decades left the country mired in poverty.

She pledged to address rampant corruption, citing the NLD’s policy that every candidate must declare his/her moveable and property assets, as well as those of spouses and family members, accompanied with bank account disclosures.

Suu Kyi, however, seemed at pains to temper unrealistic expectations, telling supporters no society was completely corruption-free but pledging a clean government—a constant party refrain.

Corruption is an issue that strikes a chord with the majority of Burmese who are tired of the shady dealings that were the hallmark of successive ruling regimes.

The incumbent government has failed to adequately address the issue, while admitting that corrupt practices remain a “chronic” issue—a fact hammered home in annual indices that consistently rank Burma as highly corrupt.

Suu Kyi has also portrayed a vote for the NLD as a vote for personal, not merely political, change.

“Please vote for the NLD in hoping that your life can be lead in peace, freedom and security,” Suu Kyi told supporters on Saturday.

“We can’t give you money, chicken, pork and solar power like the others,” she added in jest, alluding to members of the ruling party and their allies accused of courting votes through handouts.

NLD supporters laughed, smiled and cheered, but they also seemed receptive to constructive criticism from the opposition leader.

“I think our people are lacking in self-confidence and are dispirited because you were totally oppressed over past decades,” Suu Kyi addressed the crowd, to another round of applause.

Citing the poor collective record of past ruling regimes, Suu Kyi stands on a simple message of change.

“We need to change a system where the government doesn’t dare to take responsibility,” she said. “We want to be in government because we dare to take responsibility. Only through the support and help of the people can we change that system.”

Observers of Suu Kyi in recent years will note that while advocating for systemic change, her shrewd pragmatism is not left far behind.

Again on Saturday, the NLD leader sent a conciliatory message to the military establishment, pledging that her party would not seek retribution toward “those” that oppressed the party and its supporters in the past.

The fact remains that whatever the result post-November, the opposition leader remains barred from assuming the presidency due to a controversial clause in the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

But this impediment to power has seemingly not dimmed the hopes of thousands of NLD supporters across the country heeding Suu Kyi’s message of change.