Burma’s Uncrowned Queen

Prospect Magazine (N*242), 21.04.2016
Peter Popham, periodista irlandés
  • After decades of struggle, Aung San Suu Kyi is poised to lead Burma into a democratic future. The move into daily politics has tarnished her reputation abroad-but not among her people

At an election rally on a main road in Rangoon a few days before last November’s general election, an elderly man in a sober longyi—the Burmese sarong—sat on a folding chair in the crowd of excited children, waiting for the event to begin. Decades of ill-compensated toil in a state bank were etched in his face. I asked him why he was there, and why he was supporting Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). “I have supported the party since 1988,” he replied. “Everything needs to change. I have suffered, all the Burmese people have been suffering for many years in many different ways. I believe the NLD is the one organisation that can totally change our country.”

His view, and his stellar hopes, were typical of many I spoke to during those hectic, euphoric days before and after the general election. For some, especially the young, their feelings for “Ma Suu” were hard to distinguish from hero worship pure and simple. But for many there was not just hope but confidence that, once in power, Suu Kyi and her party would transform the nation.

“I believe the NLD can bring peace, change the constitution and implement law, order and justice,” a retired government employee told me at a huge rally in a Rangoon park at which Suu Kyi herself was the main attraction. A few days later outside the NLD’s headquarters, as the stunning results came in and it became clear that the NLD was heading for a landslide victory, a young man told me: “We trust her completely. We stand with the NLD. I hope she can change the constitution. She will be our Abraham Lincoln.”

It was moving to discover that thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Burmese voters had lined up outside polling stations hours before dawn on election day to make sure they were able to exercise their democratic right. It was impressive to find that of the millions who waited patiently in long lines on 8th November to vote for the NLD, many were Muslims and members of ethnic minority groups, including the Shan and the Kachin to whom it was supposed that Suu Kyi, a proud member of the majority Burman race, had only limited appeal. But to discover that so many were certain that she and she alone could turn the country upside down, right 70 or 170 years of wrongs and set their country on the right track—that was plain baffling.

When Suu Kyi emerged from house arrest in November 2010, she had been out of the public eye for 20 years, and the sum total of her political experience consisted of a few months of hectic travelling and mass meetings in 1988 and 1989. In the five years since her release she has steered her party from the political wilderness to power. She has presided over the removal of many of the international sanctions on Burma, and established a working, if still tense, détente with the military. But the wholeheartedness of her support—the conviction of sober and intelligent citizens that only she is capable of changing everything—remains puzzling.

Her party has long been regarded as weak and dysfunctional. Suu Kyi has worked hard to shine in parliament as a busy committee member, but has never exercised power over anything. And Burma’s problems—from inter-religious strife to ethnic war, from mass underdevelopment to the overweening and constitutionally anchored role of the military—are both numerous and seemingly intractable. Why do so many Burmese believe that this 70-year-old woman with no previous experience of power besides running her own family can solve them?

After the Election Commission awarded victory to her party in December, she was photographed shaking hands with President Thein Sein, the former general whose reforming urges enabled her to make the shift from activist to member of parliament. Her blazing smile said it all: this was the vindication for which she had sacrificed everything since her return to Burma in 1988. And even more, it was the vindication of her entire life, one modelled from early childhood on emulating her heroic father, the father of the Burmese army, and his achievement in liberating his nation from British rule.

For most of her life such an achievement had been the stuff of dreams. But then, at her first mass rally in 1988, she had found the words for what she wanted to do. If her father had wrested Burma away from Britain, she in turn would wrest it from the hands of the generals who had ruled and abused it since 1962: this was to be Burma’s “second struggle for independence,” as she put it in that speech. Now, as she takes charge of the country, though barred by the constitution from doing so in person, she is close to realising the dream.

So why are we on this side of the world not excited about her metamorphosis? True, for what it’s worth, Fortune magazine recently decided that she was the world’s “third greatest leader” after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Germany’s Angela Merkel—but that was a solitary blip of acclaim among a field of raspberries. What has gone wrong? After all, while she was under house arrest, everyone thought she was great. No one demurred at the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 to this political neophyte. Yet for the past three years or more feelings about Suu Kyi in the west have cooled. Why?

The problem can be summed up in a single word: Rohingya. Soon after she became an MP, after by-elections in April 2012, and as she started travelling outside Burma for the first time in more than 20 years, there was an outbreak of sectarian violence in Arakan state—in the far west of the country—between Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists. Suu Kyi bore no responsibility for those events, but she was singled out for criticism. “Three months after… Suu Kyi won a parliamentary seat,” Moshahida Sultana Ritu, a Bangladeshi academic, wrote in the New York Times, “a pogrom against a population of Muslims… began… Even Ms Aung San Suu Kyi has not spoken out… Though not as powerful as the military officers who control Myanmar’s [Burma’s] transition, [she] should not duck questions about the Rohingyas, as she has done while being fêted in the west.”

The attack was unfair and absurd. It was unfair because just a month earlier, in Europe, Suu Kyi had gone out of her way to draw attention to the “fires of suffering and strife… communal violence resulting in arson and murder” taking place in Arakan state. And it was absurd because she had never said or done anything that might have provoked the violence—she was as blameless for what was happening as Moshahida Sultana Ritu herself. And as crimes had been committed by both sides, it would have been reckless of her to single out the Rohingya for sympathy and the Arakanese Buddhists for blame.

But as a stateless, persecuted minority, systematically marginalised by the military regime, the Rohingya have much support in the west as well as in the Islamic media, and Suu Kyi’s failure to join in the chorus of denunciation made her a target. This obscure human rights issue suddenly had a famous name on which to pin its grievances, and Suu Kyi became a favoured punch ball—as she remains. A more agile or wily politician would have found a form of words to extricate herself from this difficulty, but she has never done so—leading many to believe she was not fair-minded on the issue at all, but was ignoring the sins of the Arakanese Buddhists through crude political calculation.

In the eyes of many in the west, the heroine of Burmese non-violent resistance had degenerated into an apologist for sectarian thuggery or worse. The damage has proved impossible to undo and has gained a momentum of its own: so when the Daily Mail extracted what I described as “a snippet of gossip” from my new book, The Lady and the Generals, in which Suu Kyi was heard to say, after a tense encounter with Mishal Husain on the BBC’s Today programme, “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim,” the accompanying (slight) news story went around the world.

Suu Kyi has never been a comfortable interviewee, responding awkwardly and unhappily to questions about her family and her private life, and the Rohingya issue. Her sense that she is under attack by journalists with their own agenda has created something of a siege mentality in her office. The last time I met her Chief of Staff, Dr Tin Mar Aung, she expounded at length on what she regarded as the venality of international journalists. When Thomas Fuller, the New York Times’s excellent former Burma correspondent, asked Tin Mar Aung when he might hope for an interview with the Lady, he was told “Never!”

This is all unfortunate. The foreign journalists covering Burma were well disposed towards Suu Kyi on her release in November 2010. But today, the accumulated rejections, slights and sense of queenly hauteur that she exudes have depleted that bank of support. As a result we—I include myself as part of this group—now look on Suu Kyi and her works with less indulgence than before. We ask awkward questions: why in five years has she been unable to fashion a council of advisers to guide her on policy issues? Why has she done little to encourage young talent, and failed to identify a single promising successor in the event of her falling ill or dying? Why does such chaos reign in her office that not only journalists but important well wishers—including George Soros, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama—have difficulty in securing her attention?

These relatively trivial matters prompt more fundamental questions. No one doubts that the constitution foisted on Burma by the military regime in 2008 is in need of major revision. It not only bars Suu Kyi and anyone else with a foreign spouse or children from becoming president, but also reserves three of the most important ministries for the army, requires that a quarter of MPs be serving, unelected soldiers and gives a Defence and Security Council dominated by soldiers the power to suspend democratic institutions at will.

Suu Kyi is intent on getting the constitution amended, and is backed by millions of Burmese who have signed a petition saying so, but since her election victory she has given the impression that the only clause she was really determined to have lifted was the one that applied specifically to her. In March, after three lengthy meetings with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the army, she was forced to back down and allow a proxy, an old friend of hers called U Htin Kyaw, to become President in her place. But by taking three ministerial portfolios—Foreign, Education and Electricity—she left no one in doubt that she would be calling the shots in government. And as minister in the President’s office, she would have the President under her control.

It looks like ravenous egotism—dictatorship in the making. But if the rest of the world has begun to feel ambivalent and sceptical about Aung San Suu Kyi, those feelings are not shared by most Burmese. That’s because of who she is. Ever since his assassination in 1947, her father, Aung San, has been regarded as the incarnation of Burmese nationhood. Orphaned when only two years old, Suu Kyi idolised him, aspiring to become a general until told that it was not possible for girls, and haunted by his epic achievements.

At Oxford in the 1960s, few of her fellow students knew anything about her homeland let alone about her father, but this didn’t discourage her from dressing in Burmese clothes and carrying herself like a princess. She was “impossibly grand,” an Oxford contemporary, now a senior judge, told me recently. After she became engaged to Michael Aris, a Tibet scholar, she sent him a series of extraordinary letters in which she anticipated a calling of some sort from her homeland.

As Aris wrote in 1991, after she had begun her sentence of house arrest: “From her earliest childhood [Suu Kyi] has been deeply preoccupied with the question of what she might do to help her people. She never for a moment forgot that she was the daughter of Burma’s national hero… She always used to say that if her people ever needed her, she would not fail them… She constantly reminded me that one day she would have to return to Burma.” He quoted from some of the letters she wrote him before their marriage. “I only ask one thing,” she wrote, “that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them.”

Separated from “my people” by the fact that she had lived abroad from the age of 15, Suu Kyi nonetheless felt vitally connected to them through the myth of her father: a myth to which her people looked for salvation and she looked for inspiration and justification. It was fitting that she and President Thein Sein commemorated their first public meeting in August 2011 by posing under a sepia photograph of Aung San: the man whose life and death made sense of both of their fates. Her determination to be worthy to bear his name is the driving compulsion of her life, a commitment she has prized above her family. And having sacrificed those dear to her by refusing to abandon the struggle and fly away, there was no choice for her but to carry on the struggle to the bitter end.

It is in this context that western cavils about her attitude to the Rohingya, let alone her queenly manners or chaotic office, fade into insignificance: her bond with her people is mystical. And although the triumph of the NLD means the return, after 54 years, of parliamentary democracy, Suu Kyi’s desire to have all power concentrated in her person chimes with something rooted deeply in Burmese political culture.

In his book Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know, the Asia scholar David Steinberg unpicks the Burmese political power. “Traditional concepts of the state in Burma,” he writes, “derive from an Indian model of the god-king… These concepts remain relevant today… The head of state remains inextricably linked to Buddhism… The ruler claims to rule with metta, or Buddhist loving kindness… their motivations are pure, and their edicts thus must be obeyed.

“Power is unconsciously conceived as finite, not infinite, as in ‘modern’ administrative theory… There is an unwillingness to share power since, because it is finite, to do so diminishes the authority of the leader. Power is thus a zero-sum game… The status of leadership and the finite nature of power thus leads to its personalisation. Loyalty is to the individual with power (this particular king, chairman or leader) not to the institution. This has been evident from the Pagan Dynasty [9th to 13th centuries] and since then throughout all the kings and in the republic.”

When Suu Kyi returned in 1988, to care for her mother, who had suffered a stroke, she was infused with the political ideas she had absorbed through a lifetime spent in parliamentary democracies, first in India, where her mother was Burma’s ambassador, then the UK. Eventually recruited into the popular uprising against the regime, she was persuaded to address a mass rally outside Shwedagon, the great national shrine in Rangoon. On 26th August 1988, the date marking the beginning of her political career, her expression of the uprising’s goals was western. “Reverend monks and people!” she shouted down the microphone to the million-odd Burmese assembled in the humid heat, “This public rally is aimed at informing the whole world of the will of the people… Our purpose is to show that the entire people entertain the keenest desire for a multi-party system of government… I believe that all the people assembled here have without exception come with the unshakeable desire to strive for and win a multi-party democratic system.”

There is no doubt that she was sincere. And for her audience, enraptured by this beautiful woman who bore such a striking resemblance to her father, she expressed their movement’s goal perfectly: multi-party democracy was what they wanted.

But if Steinberg is right what they really wanted without fully realising it was a wise, devout and compassionate monarch. Over the years since 1988, outsiders have watched in alarm as Suu Kyi has changed from the Oxford PPE graduate who would drag Burma into the modern world into a queen in the making—and doing so not against the will of her people but with their  endorsement.

When her chosen proxy President U Htin Kyaw—perhaps the unluckiest man in politics since Denis Thatcher—stood up to make his inaugural speech, it lasted a bare three minutes, and included a vigorous nod to his boss. And within 48 hours, the NLD had found a formula for making it clear that Suu Kyi was wholly in charge: she would take up the new-minted role of “state counsellor”—in effect, as diplomats in Rangoon commented, Prime Minister.

The bill was passed by parliament’s upper house despite military opposition; when signed into law it will mean Burma has moved from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government, leaving the hated and hard-to-change constitution untouched for the time being. It is a cunning solution to an apparently intractable problem—and as such a good augury for the new government’s success with other sticky issues. And in all but name, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be Burma’s ruling queen.

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