Myanmar: Implications of Suu Kyi’s Realpolitik

15 Jul, 2013    ·   4035

Yves-Marie Rault analyses the long-term implications of Suu Kyi's compromises on Myanmar's politics

Yves-Marie Rault
Yves-Marie Rault
Research Intern

"I want to be president and I'm quite frank about it", Aung San Suu Kyi said on 6 June, during the World Economic Forum on East Asia. The rumours about her presidential ambitions thus turned out to be true, which can explain the recent government-friendly behaviour of Myanmar’s global icon. In order to achieve her goals, Suu Kyi had to take off her white mantle, and start getting her hands dirty. Her immense national popularity has barely been affected, but those who were once her unconditional admirers have since lost a bit of their veneration.

What could be the long-term implications of Suu Kyi’s compromises on Myanmar politics?

The Suu Kyi Compromise: Necessity and Pragmatism?
Aung San Suu Kyi had been detained for two decades because she fought for her ideals. But now pragmatism is urging her to “catch the tide”, to quote her own words. If it is an opportunist move, she is more driven by a deep sense of responsibility. The Myanmarese want her to be part of the democratic transition she always fought for. The majority want her as their President in 2015. But the ride to the highest office is a journey rife with difficulties. Myanmar’s Constitution does not allow the President to have foreign children. She has two of them.

Hence, the Constitution has to be amended, and military votes will be required all along the process. This year, she repeatedly expressed her admiration and fondness for the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army), despite their well-known abuses to human rights. And she never demanded their prosecution for the committed crimes during the previous regime. Suu Kyi must indeed gain the support of the army, which remains the most powerful institution in Myanmar. To let her be a presidential candidate, the military need to be ensured that their interests will be safe if she gets elected.

Her silence on the Rohingya plight in Arakan State has also been criticized by several human rights associations. She is accused of pandering to the Buddhist population of the country, which represents more than 90% of the voters. Therefore she lost a part of her support among the minorities, especially the Muslims, but at the same time she proved to the army and the Buddhist population that she was on their side. If the aura of the National League for Democracy’s leader is still bright in Myanmar, the international community has started emitting doubts about her political commitment. In the long run, her popularity ratings could undergo a backlash.

Between Commitment and Necessary Evil
For the former political prisoner and human rights advocate, wooing the military has become a necessary evil. In order to achieve her goals, she had to adopt Machiavelli’s cynical motto, “the end justifies the means”. But even if she manages to constitute herself as a presidential candidate, her electoral success is not guaranteed yet. Despite her overwhelming popularity, Suu Kyi will have to face serious competition against several military-backed opponents. Among them will probably be the current and successful President, Thein Sein, as well as the former leading figure of the junta, Shwe Mann.

By getting involved in government affairs, and acknowledging its efforts towards democracy, Suu Kyi gave credit to it and to its leaders. This was probably the best way to encourage the transition, but if the political leader decides compromising deeper with it, she also takes the risk of being amalgamated with the other members of the political class. The foreign business community is surely expecting more from regional stability than from democracy, but she cannot afford to lose the support of the media and the human rights NGOs. In terms of domestic electorate, a whole fringe of the Buddhist population, and among them the 2007 protesters, could turn against her if she keeps bringing her blind support to the government. Some leaders in the Muslim minority already condemned her recent attitude.

Myanmar's Future Iron Lady?
Aung San Suu Kyi has proved that she could become a genuine stateswoman, ready to sacrifice individual interests for the common good. Recently, she visited an open-cast mine in Mandalay, where the local people were demonstrating against the destruction of the landscape and against the unfair acquisition of their lands. She openly answered to their claims by the assertion that the construction was necessary to economic development, and that its stop would offend the powerful China.

Suu Kyi lost in Mandalay some of her political appeal, but more importantly, we can predict that priority will be given to economy if she rises to power. The greater good will prevail, as she also confirmed recently that she will not yield to federalism immediately, because she is afraid that the resource-rich minority regions would immediately secede. This fear was actually the reason for the 1962 coup d'état. Eventually, Suu Kyi will surely adopt a pragmatic attitude in diplomatic matters, including tied collaboration with her non-democratic neighbour that she is so afraid to offend.

U Soe Thane, one of the most eminent ministers of the Myanmarese government, refers to Aung San
Suu Kyi as her "respectable elder sister". Indeed, from political troublemaker, she became part of the political system. But so far, she remains the powerful symbol of freedom and the icon of democracy. The expectations she is carrying are enormous, and bring with them a huge responsibility. Myanmar can only hope and wait to see the moon in its otherwise eclipsed sky.