Waiting for Our ‘Mandela Moment’

By Aung Zaw 7 December 2013

Leaders come and go, but their courage, inspiration and integrity can resonate long after they leave office or this world. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela will always be remembered as one of humanity’s most extraordinary leaders.

Mandela was a man of many achievements, and as Desmond Tutu wrote in the Washington Post, “Never before in history was one human being so universally acknowledged in his lifetime as the embodiment of magnanimity and reconciliation as Nelson Mandela was.”

However, amid an outpouring of tributes today, Tutu pointed out a fact that Burmese would do well to take note of: Mandela was not a saint.

Tutu wrote: “His chief weakness was his steadfast loyalty to his organization and to his colleagues. He retained in his cabinet underperforming, frankly incompetent ministers who should have been dismissed. This tolerance of mediocrity arguably laid the seeds for greater levels of mediocrity and corruptibility that were to come.”

In Burma, we have our own dissident leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Now an elected parliamentarian working within a deeply flawed system, Suu Kyi on Friday paid tribute to Mandela as a “great human being who raised the standard of humanity” and inspired others to change the world.

While under house arrest, Suu Kyi was in the past compared to Mother Teresa or Mandela. Upon her release in 2010, some newspapers even predicted Burma was due for its own “Mandela moment.” But on a weekend when many are reflecting on an inspirational life that was, Burma is still waiting for that moment.

Like Mandela, Suu Kyi has been painted in the media as Burma’s revered, even saintly, pro-democracy icon.

But Suu Kyi insists she isn’t.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

“Let me assure you, I’m no saint,” she told an audience in Sydney during her recent trip to Australia. “I look upon myself as a politician, not as an icon.”

This expectations management and the self-imposed “politician” label is understandable from a woman who has said openly that she wants to be president in 2015. But can an honest politician survive in a dirty game played by deceitful military interests and crony capitalists in Burma?

Burma’s military-drafted Constitution effectively disqualifies Suu Kyi from becoming president, owing to a clause which states that eligibility for the post precludes those who have a spouse or children who are foreign nationals. Suu Kyi’s late husband Michael Aris was British, as are her two sons.

The Constitution also requires the president to have military experience.

To change these provisions, she will need the approval of 75 percent of lawmakers in both houses of Parliament, a body where one quarter of MPs are unelected military representatives.

In her new role as an elected member of the opposition seeking to overhaul the Constitution, Suu Kyi has at times played politics. Like Mandela, pundits say the elected reincarnation of the former political prisoner has exposed her own weaknesses and flaws. Some are even saying she made a mistake in deciding to contest the country’s 2012 by-elections.

After meeting President Thein Sein for the first time in August 2011, Suu Kyi publicly vouched for him as “sincere” and set about advocating for the lifting of Western sanctions. The government, say critics and even some of her admirers, manipulated Suu Kyi to advance its goal of regaining legitimacy and convincing Western powers to lift sanctions.

Analysts say she only belatedly saw the deception and manipulation, eventually changing tack and adopting a critical tone in her public assessments of the Thein Sein administration. These days, relations between Suu Kyi and the president are said to be strained.

In dissident circles inside and outside of Burma, critical voices say that since her release from house arrest, Suu Kyi has neglected the activist network that has been built up over the last few decades to promote human rights and democracy in Burma. That network has also been a major source of support for Suu Kyi and the opposition movement.

Moreover, since failing to speak out against human rights abuses and conflict in ethnic regions, she has lost considerable support among Burma’s ethnic Kachin, who in the past supported her. This silence, coupled with her skirting the issue of violence targeting Muslims by the country’s majority Buddhists, has seen The Lady’s moral standing erode considerably since she took her seat in Parliament last year.

Like Mandela and his African National Congress party, Suu Kyi is the embodiment of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which she co-founded and guided to a sweeping victory in a 1990 general election—an outcome that was never honored. The ability of the parties of these two influential figures to function without them is still very much an open question.

With her eyes on the 2015 election, Suu Kyi is asking government leaders to amend the Constitution and has sought a dialogue involving the military, Parliament, the executive branch and the opposition NLD. The government has rejected that proposal.

No one doubts that the military still holds considerable sway over the affairs of the nation, and given this reality, Asia’s Nelson Mandela is playing a calculating game.

Of course, there are fundamental differences between the political trajectories of South Africa and Burma. Burma’s “democratization” has been a top-down process, limited and carefully engineered by the military. Former generals continue to hold power and much of the nation’s wealth.

By hook or by crook, the military and its crony associates will cling to that power for as long as they can.

The hope is that Suu Kyi can maintain popular support despite the setbacks. The Lady and her party have work to do in winning back many disgruntled and disillusioned dissidents and ethnic groups. And as important as rebuilding the old network, a new generation of leaders must be groomed for a day when our Mandela is no more.

Suu Kyi remains an inspiring figure and a dominant player in Burmese politics, but now in her late 60s, time is running out.

And still, everyone is waiting for Burma’s “Mandela moment.”