Electoral stakes high for Suu Kyi – and for Myanmar

    Aung San Suu Kyi is unwell. Her voice is dimmed, occasionally rasping as she speaks. The room brightens with the orange and white flowers she has tied into her hair and her posture is ramrod elegance, but she nonetheless has an air of frailty about her, occasionally stopping to cough. A few days earlier, sickness kept her from attending the country’s annual Armed Forces Day.

    NAYPYIDAW, MYANMAR — The Globe and Mail
    Published Friday, Apr. 10 2015, 5:00 AM EDT
    Last updated Friday, Apr. 10 2015, 5:05 AM EDT

    Aung San Suu Kyi is unwell. Her voice is dimmed, occasionally rasping as she speaks. The room brightens with the orange and white flowers she has tied into her hair and her posture is ramrod elegance, but she nonetheless has an air of frailty about her, occasionally stopping to cough. A few days earlier, sickness kept her from attending the country’s annual Armed Forces Day.

    But strength returns to her voice when she considers the year ahead, a pivotal one for a country still teetering on the brink of openness. The military-backed government has pledged open elections this fall, and what happens in 2015 “will decide whether or not we are seriously going to democratize,” Ms. Suu Kyi, 69, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

    For Ms. Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize winner who leads the country’s opposition National League for Democracy party, this is in many ways the moment she has waited for since the day in 1988 she stood before a giant Rangoon crowd in her first major speech, and proclaimed her country’s “unshakeable desire to strive for and win a multiparty democratic system.”

    This year is pivotal not just for Myanmar, the country once known as Burma, but for a global community that lifted punitive economic sanctions in part to encourage and reward greater political openness. Canada’s 2012 sanctions decision was based in part on advice from Ms. Suu Kyi, an honorary Canadian citizen, and made conditional on the continued progression of reforms. Recent months have raised serious questions over whether that’s happening, with journalists arrested, student protesters beaten and a bar owner jailed for posting to Facebook an image of Buddha wearing headphones, which was ruled blasphemous.

    And Myanmar’s reforms have done little to undo a devastating tangle of problems. The country is a thriving grower and manufacturer of illegal narcotics, with heavily armed ethnic groups engaged in a protracted civil war and a desperately poor population still not sure it’s safe to shed the fear caused by a half-century of military dictatorship.

    The stakes, then, could hardly be higher for Myanmar and for Ms. Suu Kyi, a democracy icon who will seek to repeat sweeping 2012 by-election wins on a national scale, even as she faces doubts about her ability to transform from activist to political leader.

    The country poses “a significant governance challenge,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Winning the election is probably the least of her challenges, frankly.”

    Even that may not be simple. Ms. Suu Kyi faces an incumbent with a surprising story to tell. President Thein Sein and his Union Solidarity and Development Party are the continuation of the military regime that still holds a quarter of the seats in parliament. But they have ushered in greater free speech and presided over economic reforms that have brought rapid growth. A draft ceasefire agreement has been completed. New roads and new bridges have been built.

    It’s the kind of stuff election platforms are built on – but Ms. Suu Kyi dismisses it.

    “It proves we are very, very backward and undeveloped if we are still at the stage where new roads and new bridges are a big election campaigning issue,” she said. The physical work of building a nation is something “any legitimate government should do,” she said.

    Her vision offers a dramatic break from the past. “To begin with, we can always run on anti-corruption,” she said. She added: “We are a very clean party. Poor, but clean. The people do understand that. That’s a first step towards good government.”

    There are, of course, worries. Ms. Suu Kyi’s party has triumphed before, in a 1990 election where it swept 82 per cent of the seats – but the results were tossed out by the military. She acknowledges fears of a repeat. There is “genuine anxiety on the part of the people that the government and the military might not honour the results of the 2015 elections if the NLD wins,” she said. And even electoral victory is unlikely to hand her the presidency, under a constitution closing that office to people, like Ms. Suu Kyi, whose family members hold foreign passports – although on Friday she will participate in high-level talks that will likely include discussion of the clause barring her from the presidency.

    She won’t comment on who could stand in her stead. But, she said, “there are other things that we can do besides changing the constitution to make sure we have the kind of government that the people want.” Among them is strong representation by her party.

    She expects the coming election, likely in late October or early November, to be free in the sense voters won’t cast ballots at gunpoint. “But fair is a different matter,” Ms. Suu Kyi said, and the current constitution is “very much tilted in favour of those supported by the military.” The generals in parliament have refused to bend on constitutional changes that would limit their own influence. Ms. Suu Kyi has discussed the possibility of boycotting the election, and said she fears the government may find a reason not to hold it this year at all.

    At the same time, the imprisoned journalists and beaten students have underscored the need for change. Myanmar is “just not making progress. I don’t think the reforms were as strong as a lot of people imagined they were,” Ms. Suu Kyi said. She believes her personal honesty has gained her the ability to break from the old ways. “For the people to move with you, they have to believe in you,” she said.

    Ms. Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most celebrated woman, built a reputation for unwavering honesty in the many years she spent under house arrest for refusing to bow to a brutally repressive military regime. Her courage won her much domestic affection, and international acclaim. Hillary Clinton devotes part of her new book, Hard Choices, to the change in Myanmar and Ms. Suu Kyi’s role in it. She has “carried the hopes of a nation on her shoulders,” Ms. Clinton writes, comparing her to Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel.

    Ms. Suu Kyi’s strength has rested in her willingness to forgive and her unwillingness to bend. Angry rhetoric has never been her style, and that is part of the reason she has provoked controversy in refusing to lash out at the mistreatment of groups like the Muslim Rohingya, a persecuted religious minority.

    “Taking the high moral ground just for the sake of sounding good sounds a little irresponsible,” she said.

    That position hasn’t won her admiration outside Myanmar– and has raised questions about her leadership. “She has failed to act in any meaningful way to end egregious abuses and that has been a profound disappointment,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, an organization that has reported on the human-rights atrocities committed against the Rohingya. “Silence in the face of atrocities wouldn’t be pragmatic politics, it’d be cutthroat politics.”

    Others question Ms. Suu Kyi’s ability to govern, saying she is surrounded by too few advisers, is too isolated and may not fully understand the complexity of inter-religious tension. “Whether she can do this” – lead the country – “is a question,” said Soe Myint, a prominent Burmese journalist who is founder and editor-in-chief of Mizzima Media. Still, he added, “she is very different from the current leaders. And for me, she should be given a chance.”

    He’s one among many defenders. Rena Pederson, author of the recently published book, The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of a Nation, points out the irony in Ms. Suu Kyi facing fire over Myanmar’s human-rights abuses when blame belongs with the ruling regime.

    “Suu Kyi may not be a perfect person – she readily admits she’s no saint – but she may be a necessary person to keep propelling the democracy movement forward,” Ms. Pederson wrote in an e-mail. And, she added, “there still seems to be a reservoir of respect for Aung San Suu Kyi across the country.She could still serve as an effective leader inside the country.”

    As for Ms. Suu Kyi, she says the question should not be whether a democracy fighter like herself can govern. The better question, she says, is who people trust.

    “If you have the support of the people,” she said, “you can be the leader of the country.”

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