Suu Kyi: new Mandela or old populist?

Aung San Suu Kyi memorabilia is selling well at the National League for Democracy headquarters in Yangon. Source: William Baldwin

Aung San Suu Kyi walks a delicate path. She is trying to preserve the undeniable affection with which the bulk of the population regards her while maintaining the lofty ideals that are associated with her Nobel peace prize. William Baldwin asks if finally attaining office will reveal Suu Kyi’s greatness or expose her shortcomings?

While many international observers were disappointed at her failure to defend the rights of Myanmar’s oppressed Rohingya minority over recent years, there is limited criticism of her resounding silence on less contentious issues like the imprisoned students, protesting workers and displaced farmers.

Last year, President Thein Sein released almost 7,000 prisoners in an amnesty, including 155 Chinese timber smugglers who had served only six days of a life sentence. Rapists and murderers recovered their liberty but numerous students continue to languish in jail, suffering from severe beatings and missing key exams.

Their crime was to join large student protests against the National Education Act last year which looked to centralise power away from universities. Despite promises from the authorities to leave the students unmolested, on March 10 they were beaten and detained. Many face further court appearances though they remain unconvicted.

Farmers are ejected without compensation from land cultivated by their families and then are imprisoned if they protest “illegally”. Factory workers have finally secured a minimum daily wage of Ks3,600 (US$2.75), which barely covers rising commodity prices, but they continually face exploitation and arrest for protesting against abuse. One recent industrial protest demanded that workers should only lose one day’s pay for missing one day of work.

There have been numerous deaths in Hpakant in northern Kachin State where unrestricted jade mining has boomed since the former generals were humiliated at the November 8 general election. Enormous, unlicensed Chinese diggers race though Hpakant’s villages, frequently crushing pedestrians, and giant slagheaps regularly collapse over whole settlements, killing hundreds.

Perhaps Suu Kyi is playing the long game by trying not to alarm the ruling generals, albeit now in civilian dress, but she does little to publically champion any of these causes.

Reading translations of her Burmese-language speeches gives little insight into what she will do after taking office. When speaking to the Asean Women’s Forum on December 5, 2014, in Nay Pyi Taw, she said: “If we want to make success of this transition, we have to be prepared for many challenges and to find the right answer … not just at the level of the government or any organisation but at the level of our people. The greatest transition is a change in our mindset. We need to remove the shutters of the past but of course we need to preserve what has been valuable. Of course human beings have different values, different aspirations. We can’t all think in the same way. Our very diversity is our strength.”

Unfortunately, she seems to be making little effort to publically acknowledge Myanmar’s diversity and the obstacles to establishing a peaceful federation.

One Burmese journalist, who asked not to be named, said that, since winning the election, Suu Kyi had been seen repeatedly in the company of rich tycoons with links to the military but had made no effort to hold talks with any of the 22 armed groups that threaten civil war. The so-called “ethnic armies” represent the union’s minorities along large swathes of Myanmar’s hills and threaten to propel the country into a tropical version of the Yugoslavian conflict on numerous fronts with more difficult terrain: densely forested hills. The Nobel laureate speaks of reviving her father Aung San’s “Panglong Agreement”, reached in Panglong, southern Shan State, with the Shan, Kachin, and Chin peoples on February 12, 1947. It accepted “full autonomy in internal administration for the frontier areas” and envisaged a federal union.

Suu Kyi lets this hope of peace slip at her peril but there seems little discussion of the nature of the federal state she is hoping to establish or of whether the military will sit on its hands while its area of control is reduced to the floodplains around the major cities and entire narco-states are founded.

Already there are worrying signs that Suu Kyi has won power while she is a fading force. If she had been allowed to take the presidency after her 1990 landslide electoral victory, she would presumably already be in retirement now.


Like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, she endured prolonged periods of detention and suffered at the hands of a barbaric regime. The West has been captivated by the narrative of an Oxford-educated woman who was denied the chance to visit her dying husband. But unlike Mandela, there seems little evidence that the years spent in detention and opposition will translate into a sound grasp of how to tackle tangled administrative challenges after decades of plunder and incompetence.

The fate of Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel or Poland’s Lech Wałęsa may provide a clearer parallel for Suu Kyi than Mandela. Both men lost power democratically and carried more respect overseas than domestically after proving that criticising from the sidelines did not always translate into effective administration.

There is already evidence that Suu Kyi may not have the skills necessary to reform the union’s kleptocratic administration.

Suu Kyi has failed to call the quasi-civilian government to account through her chairing of the much-hailed parliamentary Rule of Law, Stability and Peace Committee.

In November, two MPs from other opposition parties criticised her work on the committee.

Rakhine Nationalities Development Party MP Pe Than reportedly said: “The committee received 3,725 complaints … and the complaints were transferred to committees and commissions. Because of this, we say the committee is unable to work. We had high regard for the committee at the beginning and believed it could achieve a lot. But the committee has been unable to do anything after more than three years. Its responsibilities are enormous but its functions have not reached expectations. The committee has only two months left but nothing will happen.”

National Democratic Force MP Khine Maung Yi added: “I am interested in the committee as it is chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi. I studied the functions of the committee and was ready to cooperate. The committee received 3,725 complaints, 1,800 of which concerned the judiciary. We would like to know if the committee dealt with the complaints. Does the committee have any control over the judiciary?”

The lack of any democratic check on the judiciary is suggested by the repeated stories of Burmese civilians, with whom Suu Kyi claims to have such an affinity, being imprisoned often for doing as little as living on a piece of land coveted by a member of the elite.

Soon Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will take office on a wave of public goodwill which gives her a powerful mandate to reform this beautiful country with a people who have too long suffered under the army combat boot. Myanmar is the missing road and rail link that will connect Southeast Asia with India and China. Seldom has so much domestic and international expectation rested on the shoulders of an untested septuagenarian. We wait to see how she negotiates the conflicting demands when she takes whatever power the military is prepared to relinquish.

Suu Kyi’s first challenge is to assuage the many, contradictory voices telling her what her first priority should be.

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The Burmese people have been waiting for Aung San Suu Kyi to lead them since 1988. Photo: William Baldwin