‘Auntie’ Suu Kyi brings new hope to Myanmar

Feel the Burm: Aged 70, Aung San Suu Kyi has finally acquired power in Myanmar. ©PA

Aunt, mother, lady, leader: Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the most revered politicians on earth. As her party takes power, optimism is sweeping Myanmar. But not everyone is convinced…

To her people, she is known as Mother, or Auntie. To the rest of the world, she is simply The Lady.

Now, after decades of patience, Aung San Suu Kyi can add a few more titles to her name. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide majority in Myanmar‘s general election last November, kicking out an authoritarian military government that had ruled since 1962. It took power last month.

Though the constitution bans her from the presidency, Suu Kyi has appointed herself minister of foreign and presidential affairs, and created a new post – state counsellor – that gives her a lot of political influence. She has made it clear that President Htin Kyaw is effectively her puppet.

This is a watershed moment in Burmese politics. The daughter of revered nationalist leader Aung San, Suu Kyi founded the pro-democracy NLD in 1988. Months later, the military put her under house arrest, where she remained – with some breaks – until 2010. Adopting a policy of non-violent resistance to the government, she became an international symbol of peace and perseverance. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Suu Kyi’s party was elected on a promise to bring democracy and human rights to Myanmar. Whether it can do this remains to be seen: under the constitution, the military retains a quarter of parliamentary seats and control over crucial ministries. But the government has already pulled off a coup by releasing hundreds of political activists from jail. Hopes for the future are high.

The Lady is not without her critics, however. Scratch the saintly surface, they say, and a multitude of flaws appear. She can be haughty and controlling, often ignoring her colleagues’ advice. She is disorganised and sometimes rude. Most controversially, she has shown disregard for the country’s downtrodden minority, the Rohingya.

Yet Suu Kyi remains hugely popular in Myanmar, and perhaps the most famous embodiment of democratic values in the world. Does she deserve the hype?

Follow the leader?

Let’s get real, say some: Suu Kyi is no angel. She is a democratic torchbearer who manages her own party like an autocrat. She is a human rights activist who overlooks horrific abuses in her own country. She opposes the military, yet speaks of its ‘special place in the hearts of our people’. She may have a good story, but she is a hypocrite at heart.

All politicians have their flaws and inconsistencies, counter others. Because of her reputation, people expect Suu Kyi to be perfect; this is unfair. What she does have is a clear pro-democracy message, a striking personal integrity, and a thumping mandate from the people. These are rare assets in a leader. We should celebrate them.

You Decide

  1. Can anybody be perfect?
  2. Is democracy always a force for good?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have been placed under house arrest for one year. You can use everything in your home, but you cannot leave. List three things you would like to accomplish in that year, and write a few sentences explaining your choices.
  2. It is November 2015, and you have been granted the first interview with Suu Kyi after her party’s election victory. Write down five challenging questions for her.

Some People Say...

“The only real prison is fear.”

Aung San Suu Kyi

What do you think?

Q & A

What does this all mean for the rest of the world?
Myanmar occupies a key strategic position. It is rich in natural resources, which foreign nations are eyeing up. It borders China and India, both of which want to boost their trade with the country. Meanwhile, the likes of Japan and the USA see it as a potential counterweight to China, and tourists are keen to visit. If all of this is to come true, Myanmar needs a stable and open-minded government.
Does it have one?
Too early to tell. It depends on whether the NLD can co-operate with the still-powerful military, which could in theory dissolve parliament at any time. The army also faces several conflicts with minorities who want more autonomy – failure to compromise with them could undermine the government. All eyes are on the new regime.

Word Watch

Myanmar
Also known as Burma.
Bans
The constitution, which was written by the military, prohibits anyone who has been married to a foreign national from becoming president. This rule seems targeted at Suu Kyi, whose late husband was British.
Htin Kyaw
69-year-old Kyaw is a childhood friend and close political ally of Suu Kyi.
Aung San
In the 1940s, when Burma was still ruled by Britain, Aung San led the country’s independence movement. He was assassinated in 1947, six months before Burma became independent.
With some breaks
Between 1989 and 2010, Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest. The government offered to return her to Britain, where her family lived, on the condition that she did not come back. She refused. Her husband died while she was in captivity.
Rohingya
The Rohingya are denied citizenship, and have faced abuse and discrimination at the hands of the country’s Buddhist majority. The United Nations has called them one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Suu Kyi, a Buddhist, has dodged calls to specifically condemn anti-Muslim violence in Burma.

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