Despite the Awards, Suu Kyi Left Wanting

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 20 June 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi is now getting used to receiving deafening standing ovations and emotional greetings on her first trip abroad as a global icon. Finally returning to Europe after 24 years, she belatedly received the 1991 Noble Peace Prize and other honorary awards bestowed while she was under house arrest.

Prestigious accolades, however, are not what Suu Kyi has long set out to acquire. The democracy icon is still striving to achieve the one thing that truly matters—a real political dialogue with the military-dominated government.

Many believe that Burma desperately needs national reconciliation—not only to solve a catalogue of internal conflicts but also to speed up the overall reform process initiated by President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government last year. To achieve reconciliation, genuine political discourse is essential.

In August and April, the general-turned-president and prisoner-turned-parliamentarian held two meetings in Naypyidaw. Suu Kyi said after the first meeting that she trusted Thein Sein’s sincerity regarding democratic reform.

The first historic encounter took place symbolically under a portrait of Suu Kyi’s father, Burma’s independence hero Gen Aung San, and gave the impression that the process of national reconciliation had begun.

Yet did these meetings have any real political significance? And are such discussions still taking place at the moment?

“The meeting with President U Thein Sein was just a discussion between him and me. I don’t view it as a real political meeting,” Suu Kyi told reporters this week during a panel discussion of the Oslo Forum with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Garh Store and U2 front man Bono.

“Political meetings need to be broader. A real political meeting should include representatives from ethnic minorities, the government and opposition groups around a table,” she added. “Only then, can we call it a real political meeting.”

“A meeting or discussion between only two of us can’t be a political meeting,” Suu Kyi emphasized.

What the opposition leader clearly still desires is the tripartite dialogue demanded by ethnic political groups, the United Nations and Western governments over the past two decades.

Burma’s former military government never offered such an opportunity. Thein Sein’s administration also never considered holding such a dialogue. Before the 2010 general elections, the response of the junta was: “those who call for dialogue should join this election and then talk within Parliament.”

That was one of the reasons Suu Kyi and her party chose to contest the by-elections on April 1.

Thein Sein’s government still maintains the junta’s policy regarding such a tripartite dialogue despite clear reformist tendencies. At the moment, such a dialogue remains impossible in Burma.

Obviously, the previous two meetings between Suu Kyi and Thein Sein sped up some of the reform process, including the decision by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to contest the spring ballot. Prior to this was an amendment to the election law to allow Suu Kyi to stand, the release of hundreds of political prisoners in January and peace negotiations with ethnic armed groups.

Nevertheless, Thein Sein’s government remains obstinate when it comes to the subject of tripartite dialogue. In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on Saturday, Suu Kyi repeated her offer to take part in the peace process with ethnic armed groups.

“My party, the National League for Democracy, and I stand ready and willing to play any role in the process of national reconciliation,” Suu Kyi said.

“The reform measures that were put into motion by President U Thein Sein’s government can be sustained only with the intelligent cooperation of all internal forces—the military, our ethnic nationalities, political parties, the media, civil society organizations, the business community and, most important of all, the general public.”

It is highly unlikely that Thein Sein’s government will consider her offer of assistance in the peace process with ethnic armed groups, let alone an overall political dialogue.

Perhaps, the government, which is comprised almost entirely of ex-armed forces personnel, believes that the peace process with armed groups remains solely a military issue. Perhaps a military mentality remains on this issue despite the donning of civilian suits.

Indeed, the government has formed its own peace committee with ministers and army leaders to deal with resolving ethnic conflicts.

Suu Kyi also said in the forum, “We have to work together with the army. We don’t want to be in conflict with them. We want to achieve a consensus. We want them to understand that what we are doing is starting a process that will be better for the whole country and will improve the military as well.”

To achieve a real political dialogue, Suu Kyi says her party will persevere in engaging in constructive debate both inside and outside of Parliament. But with such a candid discussion extremely unlikely in the legislature due to the residual 25 percent of seats reserved for the military, Thein Sein’s administration will feel little urgency to heed her call any time soon.