Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s champion of democracy, is on a landmark visit to India, the country where she spent several formative years as a student in New Delhi. The visit has dominated the headlines about her expression — though understated — of sadness at India’s decision to engage with the military rulers of Myanmar who kept her under detention for the better part of two decades. It has also been an opportunity for her to express what expectations she has from India, both as an opposition politician and as someone who is soon expected to lead her country. That calls for an objective assessment of her political role in Myanmar. Some have expressed feeling let-down that she is no longer a firebrand political activist, and that she has neither condemned the recent incidents of rioting in the Rakhine, in which the Rohingya suffered the most, nor spoken out against Myanmar’s institutionalised discrimination against the community. But considering the historical changes that are taking place in Myanmar and the challenges that lie ahead, her present approach is that of a pragmatic political leader who has eschewed confrontation to play a constructive role in the incremental political transformation of the country.
Long years of house arrest and isolation from the outside world, including from her own family, have transformed her into a seasoned politician. When the regime showed signs of reconciliation, she came to realise that a rigid and a confrontational stance with the regime could not just reverse the limited reforms the government had initiated under its road map to democracy, but could even make her politically irrelevant. Her pragmatism made things easier for the reformist President to take the next step — allowing her and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) to take part in the electoral process, without which the reforms will not enjoy popular support or domestic legitimacy, nor receive the international recognition that the regime badly needed to come out of its isolation and scourge of sanctions. Or put differently, without the cooperation between her and the government, the regime would have never undertaken the political and economic reforms that it has, nor would the West have lifted the economic sanctions against Myanmar; the country would have remained in the international doghouse.
Suu Kyi is conscious of the lack of national capacity to transform Myanmar into a democratic state in the near future. Political institutions are in their infancy. The existence of Hluttaw (parliament) is not enough to usher in democracy in Myanmar. Parliament and Assembly members are inexperienced and ignorant about procedures. Most do not even know how to introduce a bill and table a resolution. The NLD is not in good shape as the party infrastructure she had built before the 1990 elections was all but destroyed by the military junta. Its overwhelming victory in the by-elections early this year was due to her own charisma and that cannot see her through all the time, particularly in the next elections in 2015. The NLD is now controlled by old people, some in their eighties, while younger party members are impatient to be inducted.
Some smaller parties — including a breakaway group from the NLD which fought the 2010 elections as the National Democratic Front (NDF) — and received a few seats in parliament, could not win a single seat in the by-elections of 2012. They are apprehensive of being wiped out by the NLD in 2015, and have recently floated the idea of having a proportional representation system so that they can still maintain a presence in the future electoral process. The regime has shown willingness to accommodate their demand. The ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is reported to be nervous about the challenge it might face from the NLD in 2015 and would like to play the smaller parties against the NLD.
Independent judiciary needed
Myanmar has a long history of failure in state and institution building. Today the military machine is all there is, with only the shadow of other institutions remaining. Civil society was completely debilitated, but now seems to be growing again, though on a smaller scale and under difficult circumstances. The problem lies in creating state institutions from scratch that can replace the military state that exists, not just in governance and administration, but also in the economy of the country. An independent judiciary is another precondition for the restoration of democracy in the country. In the absence of institutions and the vision of a new Burma that includes concerns of the ethnic groups in the country, any political change, even with a new civilian government, will be meaningless, for the army would still be there, lurking in the wings and waiting to overturn everything through a coup as it did in 1962.
Aware of these difficulties, Suu Kyi knows that she cannot afford to be impatient and push things through. She believes that President Thein Sein is “sincere” in his intent to bring about change in the country even while he faces formidable challenges from the hardliners in the armed forces and therefore needs her help in steering those changes. Thein Sein has even declared that he was prepared to accept Suu Kyi as the next president if the people of the country wanted it so. That will, however, require amendment to the present constitution that bars her from occupying the highest position in the country because of the foreign origin of her children. Suu Kyi herself has demanded the amendment, and going by the past when the constitution was amended to allow her to fight the by-elections, it may not be an unlikely possibility.
It is the same caution and pragmatism that has prompted her not to criticise the government and take sides on the sensitive Rohingya issue even though she has emphasised the necessity of restoring the rule of law and dealing with the root causes of the tensions. On November 7, Suu Kyi and lawmakers from ethnic minority parties called on the government to deploy more troops to restore peace and stability in the Rakhine state hit by recent violence and stressed that the concerns of both groups — the Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims — should be addressed. She may have disappointed some by not taking sides in a very critical and sensitive issue, but one cannot be both a politician and an activist.
(Baladas Ghoshal is distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, and former Professor and Chair, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.)
Aung San Suu Kyi has chosen the path of constructive realism to achieve democracy in Myanmar