Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can be a Better Leader
24 January 2012: (Editorial) There is no doubt that Burma’s Nobel Peace Laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi commands great respect from all citizens of Burma, including the country’s long-marginalized ethnic groups. That source of respect comes from her not just being the daughter of Burma’s independence leader General Aung San, but more importantly, from her personal sacrifice for the principles she has unwaveringly stood for during the last two decades.
Many non-Burman ethnic political leaders put unquestioned loyalty in Aung San Suu Kyi because they see her as the only Burmese political leader whom they can really trust.
But as the 67-year-old leader prepares to officially re-enter Burmese political scene, Suu Kyi stands to face many challenges in re-convincing the ethnic people that their interests will be best served by them voting for her National League for Democracy Party. With the NLD having been out of mainstream politics and arguably experiencing waning popularity in the ethnic States (not the least of which was because of its decision to mount a boycott campaign in the 2010 elections, while many ethnic groups decided to participate), it is conceivable that the 1990 election-winning party will have a hard time convincing ethnic voters come the By-elections in April and the next elections in 2015. (Not that many seats are up for grabs in the April By-elections in the ethnic areas, because the constituencies were largely left vacant by the appointment of cabinet, which is composed largely of ethnic Burman ex-military officers contesting largely from non-ethnic areas)
As an activist Aung San Suu Kyi is revered and idolized by most Burmese people. But this might not necessarily be true with her being a politician at the helm of a political party. As a party that led a boycott campaign of the 2010 elections tries to re-establish its base in the ethnic areas, the NLD might be seen as a ‘Johnny-come-lately,’ whereas the ethnic parties that participated in the 2010 polls now have solid electoral bases. The NLD now risks rivalling those new ethnic parties.
This risk is especially real in light of the fact that since her release from house arrest more than a year ago, Suu Kyi is alleged to have never attempted to reach out to the new leading ethnic parties, including those from the Ethnic/Nationalities Brotherhood Forum, an informal coalition of five ethnic parties from Chin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine and Shan States, which has been one of the most outspoken voices in the new Parliament.
From an electoral perspective, compared with the 1990 elections, in which the NLD swept many constituencies from the ethnic areas, voters in the ethnic States are now better informed and have aligned themselves with local political parties from their own ethnic groups. Some observers contend that the ethnic parties did not gain as many seats as they should have in the 2010 elections due to the NLD’s boycott, which dissuaded voters from going to the polls, making it possible for the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to defeat its rival parties through the manipulation of the ‘advance votes.’
Another challenge for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is that many ethnic people now see her and her party as rather weak on championing the ethnic cause, especially when it comes to the ongoing conflict in northern Burma’s Kachin State. Although not many people express their dissatisfaction publicly, some have privately voiced their displeasure.
And since the recent revival of the NLD as a political party, Aung San Suu Kyi is seen as becoming more of a politician than an activist championing the cause of the entire nation. One such notable example is that during her press conference to mark the one year anniversary of her release in November 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi said that according to her party’s list, there were only over 500 political prisoners in the country. During the latest round of amnesty, the Burmese Home Minister was quoted as saying by the media that his government was relying on the NLD’s list in granting amnesty. There is no doubt that hundreds of NLD activists were jailed. But there might also be hundreds of others whom the NLD party may not necessarily know about, who can also be designated as prisoners of conscience, including those from the ethnic armed groups who fought for the same ideals as the NLD, but did not have any other choice other than to take up arms. By publishing its own list of ‘political prisoners’, which has been relied on not just by Thein Sein’s government but by many governments around the world the NLD has effectively unilaterally defined who a prisoner of conscience is, at the expense of the lives and well-being of possibly hundreds of detainees who were arrested on political grounds.
In this context, as things stand today the NLD now risks alienating a whole range of groups, who otherwise might have supported the party in the past.
Politics is often polarizing and politicians are often the agent of it. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, being the undisputedly most respected public figure in Burmese politics, can be a better leader for the whole nation than a politician leading a political party.