Suu Kyi returns to hard graft of Myanmar politics


After a triumphant European tour where she was lauded by crowds, stars and governments, Aung San Suu Kyi returns to the reality of domestic politics to join the ranks in the country’s parliament.
The empty streets of the nation’s purpose-built capital Naypyidaw are a far cry from Europe where she was greeted by rock star Bono, honoured at Oxford University and praised for her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
Entry into Naypyidaw’s parliament is also likely to herald a less glamourous status for the democracy champion, as MPs focus their attentions on pushing through reforms aimed at ending Myanmar’s decades of poverty and isolation.
Swept into the legislature with fellow members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in landmark April by-elections, Suu Kyi currently has no official role other than as MP for her small rural constituency near Yangon.
“She will still have opportunities to make speeches and statements… and try to influence things there, but she won’t have much authority,” said Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar, formerly called Burma.
“She has a role of leader of the opposition and member of the parliament. She is not the government.”
The 67-year-old is set to take her seat in parliament for the first time on July 9, missing meetings this week because she needs to recover from an exhausting European travel schedule, her party said Sunday. Other NLD elected members will enter the legislature on Wednesday.
MPs are expected to discuss deadly communal violence which flared in western Myanmar recently, among other issues, in the new session.
The military still dominates parliament, holding a quarter of the seats, with an overwhelming majority of the remaining MPs drawn from the party created by the former junta, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.
Suu Kyi, who spent much of the last two decades under house arrest, will need to work hand-in-hand with the new reformist government led by former general Thein Sein in her new role, and expectations are high now she is at the locus of political power.
“She has now entered the field as an elected politician to help guide (Myanmar’s) next steps toward a secure, democratic, just and prosperous future,” Derek Mitchell, the future US ambassador in Yangon, told a US Senate committee this week.
Suu Kyi is widely regarded in the West as Myanmar’s leader-in-waiting, and before she left Paris on Friday she confirmed her leadership aspirations to AFP, saying “any party leader must be prepared for this possibility”.
The military are “still the strongest, but ultimately it is the Burmese people who must decide what direction they want for the country”, she added.
The NLD is dedicated to this goal.
“We assume that we will win the majority” in 2015, NLD MP Win Htein told AFP. “However, we have to amend (the constitution) gradually… so that Aung San Suu Kyi can become the president.”
Currently, the constitution effectively bars Suu Kyi from holding the office because of her marriage to the late British author Michael Aris.
While she was away, Thein Sein’s cabinet “was clearly trying to give the impression that they were getting on with the job,” Wilson said, adding that some in the regime “weren’t very happy with the adulation that she received”.
Win Min, a US-based Myanmar researcher at the Vahu Development Institute said Suu Kyi will need to be conciliatory as she maps out her political future.
“The challenge for her is how to earn confidence from the military leadership, and to compromise with the current government leaders to make sure they will transfer power once she wins,” Win Min said of the future election.
As an MP Suu Kyi’s daily work will be dominated by issues including the economy, the fair distribution of oil and gas revenues and the health and education sectors, he said.
Her supporters will be hoping that she can also position herself to rule.
“She’s the (Nelson) Mandela of our time,” Win Min said, referring to the South African anti-apartheid leader, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize two years after Suu Kyi, in 1993, and whose experience as an activist and political prisoner bears some resemblance to Myanmar’s democracy figurehead.
But some analysts urge caution over raising expectations too high as Suu Kyi steps into the uncertain terrain of Myanmar’s political reforms, with major pitfalls ahead — including the claims of the nation’s myriad ethnic groups.
“Western leaders have revived the iconic status of Aung San Suu Kyi and seem to see in her the only Burmese figure capable of guiding the country’s democratisation,” said Renaud Egreteau, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong.
“They’d better not forget that Myanmar is much more diverse.”