Suu Kyi’s Flair Already Causing Rifts

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 5 June 2012

What is the vital factor that is necessary for successful reform in Burma? “National commitment,” says Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Our success will depend on how irreversible the reform process is—on national commitment,” the Burmese democracy icon told the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Friday. “There has to be commitment on the part of all of those who wish to improve the state of our country.”

Of course, this refers to the Burmese armed forces, which still plays a key role despite a nominally civilian government taking office over a year ago. Suu Kyi said that the potential for backtracking “depends on how committed the military is to the reform process.”

The country clearly requires national reconciliation after decades of authoritarian military rule, mismanagement and ethnic conflict. This is one of Suu Kyi’s goals, but it is made exceedingly complicated due to Burma’s disparate tapestry of ethnic minorities.

Yet the 66-year-old added, “It is national commitment that will bring us both national reconciliation and improvements in our material conditions.”

Does this mean that the main opposition leader still harbors doubts regarding not only the military but also President Thein Sein’s apparently reformist government?

While Suu Kyi maintains that she has faith in the sincerity of the general-turned-president, she nevertheless told a WEF press conference, “I can’t read their hearts and minds. We all have to make sure that they keep their word.”

Thein Sein, who is widely hailed as a soft-spoken reformist, has embarked on a program of broad democratization since assuming office last March. And he promised to go further during his recent speech to mark the one year anniversary of taking power.

But the question remains how far the president wishes to go with reform. And does this match what his government desires on the one side, and Suu Kyi and her supporters crave on the other?

Suu Kyi warned that the president is not alone in the government. So even if Thein Sein is genuinely determined to carry out reform, many believe that certain ministers and high ranking officials remain resistant to this process.

But the president might even be part of the problem. Some believe he does not have the willingness to work hand-in-hand with Suu Kyi towards further reform.

Thein Sein himself planned to attend the WEF but canceled his trip at the last minute—prompting observers to postulate that his absence was due to the presence of Suu Kyi in the forum.

Of course, Thein Sein would not want to be overshadowed by his once prisoner. He could even feel intimidated to share the same panel as the Nobel Laureate. As expected, Suu Kyi outshone every world leader and prominent economist at the event.

And yet again Thein Sein has called off a visit to Thailand. While we can put the first cancelation down to competing with Suu Kyi, the reason behind the second—a trip scheduled on June 4-5—is less clear.

Thein Sein himself probably did not like what Suu Kyi did in Thailand. She visited Burmese migrant workers in the port town of Mahachai, just south of Bangkok, on Wednesday to listen to their heartfelt stories.

And she returned there on Thursday to talk with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung regarding the rights of the more than two million Burmese living in Thailand. Suu Kyi was warmly welcomed and Chalerm promised to help improve the conditions her compatriots.

No high ranking Burmese official has ever come out to talk about rights of migrants who are commonly exploited and abused in Thailand. Yet during her short visit Suu Kyi tried to get such an assurance from the highest level and quickly became a hero among downtrodden migrants.

On Saturday, Suu Kyi went to Mae La refugee camp, the biggest of nine such facilities along the Thai-Burmese border, which houses more than 40,000 refugees. She was then scheduled to meet ethnic leaders and other dissidents in Mae Sot.

But the Burmese government reportedly complained to the Thai authorities about the trip. Dissident sources in the area say that Burmese diplomats in Bangkok also complained to the Thai Foreign Ministry about Suu Kyi’s trip and her arranged meeting with rebel groups by the frontier.

It becomes increasingly clear that Thein Sein, and his administration generally, is not happy about Suu Kyi’s performance on the road. On Friday, the official website of the President’s Office said that Thein Sein’s scheduled visit to Thailand next week was postponed, but did not provide any explanation.

One high-ranking Thai government official quoted by the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper attributed Thein Sein’s no-show to his administration’s “dissatisfaction” regarding Suu Kyi’s trip.

Prominent figures based around Mae Sot who expected to meet Suu Kyi were clearly perturbed by the snub, with an arranged plan for refugees to greet her at a football field in Mae La also canceled.

Thein Sein’s government does not like Suu Kyi getting involved in solving ethnic conflicts. The opposition MP previously offered to play a role in ceasefire negotiations but did not even receive a response from the president.

Just like Burma’s former regimes, it appears that even Thein Sein does not want direct dialogue between Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders. Or perhaps it is a specific sector for both the cabinet and the military which wants Suu Kyi disengaged from the peace process.

Yet many think that Suu Kyi should be the top candidate for dealing with ethnic leaders, including armed groups, as she commands near-universal respect. So why does the government not let channel her efforts in that direction?

This appears to be the issue of “national commitment” that Suu Kyi raised at the WEF. If Thein Sein has a genuine desire for further reform, there is no reason he should feel irritated, intimidated, overshadowed or dissatisfied with Suu Kyi’s performance.