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Lady In Waiting
<p>Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images</p>

Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Aung San Suu Kyi is increasingly alienating minority groups in her country.

Who Doesn’t Love Suu Kyi?

Aung San Suu Kyi has made some surprising new friends on her way from democracy icon to politician: Burma’s former military men and crony capitalists are getting cosy. The country’s downtrodden minorities, not so much.


Tolerating racists, coddling the military, courting crony capitalists — these aren’t accusations the world is used to hearing against Aung San Suu Kyi.

But plenty has changed since the Nobel Peace Prize winner made the transformation from detained democracy icon to politician.

Since her release from house arrest over two years ago, Suu Kyi has become a key player in democratic reforms spearheaded by President Thein Sein, a former senior official in the country’s old junta. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) has gained a toehold in a parliament still dominated by old regime loyalists and uniformed soldiers. The Lady, as many Burmese call her, has made it clear she wants to become president when Burma holds democratic elections in 2015.

The wife of a prominent businessman reportedly paid the equivalent of nearly $50,000 for a sweater knitted by Suu Kyi.

Yangon, Burma’s peeling main city, is choked with new traffic. Newspapers are largely free of censorship, and secret police have vanished from the streets. The city’s hotels are seeing unprecedented numbers of silver-haired tour groups, as well as hopeful NGO workers and businessmen.

But in other parts of the country, things are looking grim. In the northern Kachin areas, a brutal war with ethnic rebels that has likely killed thousands since mid-2011 goes on. In the western Rakhine state, fighting between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhines last year likely killed hundreds and displaced at least 100,000 Rohingya, who are now living in squalid camps. Media freedom has exposed an ugly underbelly of anti-Muslim prejudice among many Burmese.

Even though she doesn’t run Burma — yet — Suu Kyi has been thrust to the centre of all this. Spending much of her time in the new sparse capital Naypyidaw, Suu Kyi has embarked on what is widely viewed internationally as a successful collaboration with the ex-military men leading the country’s top-down transition. With the Nobel Laureate’s blessing, foreign sanctions on both the government and business have been eased and more than $5.8 billion of Burma’s debt has been forgiven.

But while Suu Kyi remains popular in the heartland of Burma’s ethnic Bamar majority, she is increasingly alienating foreign supporters, as well as the minorities who make up one-third of the population. For six decades, many of these minority groups have been involved in intermittent conflict aimed at earning greater autonomy from the central government. Now Suu Kyi has caused concern by appearing to draw the NLD closer to some of Burma’s crony capitalists, a small club of men who grew rich under sanctions by leveraging their connections to the military junta to gain dominance over a crippled economy.

<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

Yangon's bustling downtown.

What exactly is Suu Kyi up to?

Central to the current machinations is that Suu Kyi is angling for the country to hold its first fully democratic parliamentary elections in 2015, says Richard Horsey, an analyst and former United Nations official in Yangon.

“Given her huge popularity across much of the country, a landslide victory seems very likely, which will be further amplified by the first-past-the-post electoral system,” Horsey says.

“The risk is that this will marginalise some important and powerful constituencies: the old political elite, the ethnic minorities and the non-NLD democratic parties.

“This is a serious risk because a stable and sustainable transition will be very difficult unless the political process is inclusive.”

It was Suu Kyi’s meeting with Thein Sein in mid-2011 that convinced her the government’s reform project was for real, Horsey says. And it has been Suu Kyi’s star power that in turn has convinced the world to back the country’s transformation.

Suu Kyi is widely seen as having formed a close working relationship with Shwe Mann, the powerful speaker of the lower house, who is a former general. As a result she’s had a greater say on key bills than the NLD’s tiny representation would otherwise merit.

She has caused concern by appearing to draw the NLD closer to some of Burma’s crony capitalists, a small club of men who grew rich under sanctions through their connections to the old military regime.

If Suu Kyi wants to become president, however, she will have to change the constitution, which currently bars her from running because she was once married to a foreigner. Changing the constitution to allow her presidency would require the agreement of a more than 75 per cent majority in the parliament, meaning she would need the support of both the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, and serving soldiers, who under the current constitution hold 25 per cent of seats.

In short, she has to convince the current rulers that their interests will be safe even if they are squeezed out of power by the NLD.

Many critics of Suu Kyi say she has gone soft on her former jailers, particularly when it comes to what is arguably the most pressing problem facing Burma: ethnic chaos.

During the violence in Rakhine State, Suu Kyi repeatedly avoided the thorny issue of whether or not the stateless Rohingya – who are regarded as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants by the government, despite having lived in Burma for generations – should be given citizenship.

She was similarly reluctant to criticise widely documented abuses by the Burmese army against Kachin rebels, instead stating earlier this year on a visit to the United Kingdom that she had long been “fond” of the army. Following sustained criticism, Suu Kyi offered to mediate the conflict. That offer was curtly rejected by the rebel Kachin Independence Army.

<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

Yangon: Authoritarian rule in Burma is subsiding, but democracy is proving complicated.

“I think she’s more silent than the past, more silent to criticise,” says Zaw Min, a member of the 88 Generation of activists, which takes its name from the bloody 1988 uprising against the former military regime. “I think her aim is to soften the government or to change the constitution. She’s only paying attention to these issues to take power.” New fissures have emerged in Burmese politics since the days of military rule and Suu Kyi’s house arrest, he argues. “In the past, we would say there are two sides to our country: the military and the democratic side. But that’s not true [anymore]. There are a lot of sides.”

Thein Sein has earned kudos for securing ceasefires with a number of ethnic rebel armies, most notably for securing a halt to the 63-year conflict between the government and the Karen National Union. But even outside the riven Kachin areas and Rakhine State, peace is shaky. A central demand of many ethnic groups is the creation of a federal union to replace the current central state, which is heavily dominated by the majority Bamar. They argue this is the spirit of the Panglong Agreement, which was negotiated with Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, before he was assassinated in 1947, before independence was achieved from Britain.

While many minorities are making tentative steps towards negotiating with Thein Sein’s government, their relationship with Suu Kyi’s NLD has mostly gone backwards, says Khun Htun Oo, a leader of the Shan National League for Democracy.

“A stable and sustainable transition will be very difficult unless the political process is inclusive.”

Htun Oo, a former political prisoner who had been serving a 93-year sentence for charges including treason, was released in early 2012 as part of the country’s reforms. His ethnic group, the Shan, is Myanmar’s largest minority. Its members reside mostly in the hilly parts of Burma around the Thai, Chinese and Laotian borders — an area infamous for armed conflict, and the production of heroin and methamphetamine. Htun Oo’s group is traditionally aligned with the NLD, but he has become disappointed with Suu Kyi’s engagement with the government.

“I don’t know what it is, but we can feel that there is some agreement between the government and Daw Suu,” he says, referring to Suu Kyi by an honorific. Htun Oo interprets her attitude as being: “Don’t try to be an opponent of the government and don’t try to criticise the military. She’s quite reluctant with these affairs.”

“We have stood by her but ... when she joined force with the parliament we were not consulted about it. We are all warning each other: trusting a person is dangerous. We trusted [Suu Kyi’s father] Aung San as a person. And when the person died, the problems started. Now, if we trust The Lady and once she changes her mind, it could cause the same problem. We might as well stick to our own policy and fight for it.”

Suu Kyi is trying her best to reach out to the minorities, but is consistently rebuffed, argues Nyan Win, a senior NLD official. “The conflict between the Burma government and the ethnic groups is based on racism. Many ethnic groups don’t like the Bamar.”

Adding to the widely held belief that Suu Kyi is focussing solely on improving relations with the Bamar elite is the perception that she and the NLD have been conciliatory towards, if not directly courting, Burma’s crony capitalists. In late 2011, Suu Kyi famously accepted an invitation to publicly watch a football match in the company of Zaw Zaw, a tycoon whose financial interests range from toll roads to hotels and jade, and who is the subject of US sanctions. It is one of a number of meetings she’s had with Zaw Zaw.

<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

Myriad religions and ethnic groups mix on Yangon's streets, but sectarian tensions are high in much of the country.

More controversially, Soe Win, a senior NLD official, confirmed to The Global Mail that an educational foundation run by the NLD last year received 70 million kyat, or about $79,500, from a company owned by Tay Za, another tycoon operating under sanctions from the US — he was described by the US Treasury in the pre-reform era as “a notorious regime henchman and arms dealer”. The foundation also received 130 million kyat from SkyNet, a broadcaster owned by Kyaw Win, who has close links to the current regime. His wife reportedly paid the equivalent of nearly $50,000 for a sweater knitted for charity by Suu Kyi.

In January, Tay Za, who has interests in both jade and timber in the Kachin north, also reportedly gave 70 million kyat to the military, to match his donation to the NLD.

The NLD’s Soe Win defends the donations it has received, saying they are acceptable because they did not go directly into party coffers. By reaching out to such regime cronies, the NLD hopes to reform them into responsible businessmen, he says. “This is a transitional period. We have no experience and no comparison. We have to train them; change their mindset,” Soe Win says of the businessmen, adding that he has yet to see evidence of any such change. And he says the NLD will only allow direct contributions from these businessmen in 2015 if they have significantly improved their record.

An assistant to Suu Kyi declined a request by The Global Mail for an interview. Tay Za also declined our request for an interview, citing a lack of time; and a list of written questions submitted in lieu of an interview remained unanswered at the time of publication of this article. Zaw Thet Maung, a senior executive of Kyaw Win’s SkyNet, denies any attempt to politically influence Suu Kyi or the NLD, characterising the contributions as “purely charity”.

<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

Lighter restrictions on speech in Burma have unleashed an undercurrent of anti-Muslim prejudice.

Regardless of whether their approach to Suu Kyi has borne fruit, the government cronies are seeing their fortunes improve alongside the reform process. The US Treasury in late February eased restrictions on US companies doing business with banks owned by Tay Za and Zaw Zaw.

There’s little doubt that Suu Kyi remains essential to Burma’s transition. She is wildly popular among the ethnic majority, and she remains the closest thing to a unifying national figure. A recent editorial in The Irrawaddy, a magazine set up abroad by Burmese exiles, but which has recently established a presence in Burma, sums up the frustration of many of her critics:

“Suu Kyi is right that Burma doesn’t need a saviour; but it does need a leader. After a year of collecting international accolades, it’s time for her to prove that she is that leader.

“As long as Suu Kyi continues to avoid taking any meaningful stance on the very real issues that plague Burma, the ‘democratically united’ country that she spoke of in her speech will remain as elusive as ever. Without decisive words from the woman in whom the country has placed its hopes for a better future, Burma will remain, at best, a slightly less repressive version of the deeply divided tyranny it has been for most of its history as a modern nation.”

8 comments on this story
by Alexander Lin

Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its economy has been mismanaged for decades. Things were going from bad to worse for tens of millions of villagers and the urban poor. The present government seems as if it wants to change this and has taken many important first steps, to attract investment, secure new loans for new infrastructure, abolishing the old fixed exchange ate system, etc. The present government has also given senior posts to the cream of the country's returned exiles. The question for Aung San Suu Kyi is whether she has ANY economic policy ideas or ANY people with serious economic management experience around her. So far, the answer if unequivocally 'no'. A Suu Kyi led government could easily take the economy into a nose dive just as an economic transition is getting underway.

March 7, 2013 @ 10:49am
by IAN CUGLEY

Suu Kyi is now facing in many respects her greatest challenge. On the one hand she risks putting powerful forces offside by moving too fast too soon. On the other, she risks criticism from both within the country and abroad if she walks a careful path to the elections due in 2015. Whatever the risk or chosen path, she remains Burma's only real hope in its emergence from tyranny and isolation. With her, the hopes of a long suffering people reside. May the Lord Buddha walk hand in hand with her showing the middle road.

March 9, 2013 @ 5:27pm
by Jeff Calvert

Suu Kyi has learned the tough way that politics is the art of compromise. Large reforms take time,... and tiny steps with compromises with entrenched powers in between is the only way to move forward. Suu Kyi is playing the long game. Lets hope she has enough time and energy to see it through.

March 10, 2013 @ 10:45am
by Ko Win Oo

Things move slowly. Myanmar is in transition. It is right to question Suu Kyi’s commitment to the rights of the ethnic groups occupying the fringe around the Burman heartland who, never let it be forgotten, have been treated atrociously by the Burman-dominated Tatmadaw for decades and who felt betrayed by the failure of Aung San’s successors to honour the Panglong Agreement. But we also need to remember that Myanmar’s problems are manifold and there is a lot of history to undo and bad deeds to rectify. To expect Suu Kyi to resolve or even address these when she is still trying to consolidate the gains of the last couple of years is, frankly, unrealistic.

I’m not an apologist for Suu Kyi and will readily acknowledge her past strategic mistakes. But I also think it’s unfair to expect her to be the saviour of the nation and solve all its problems now that she finally has a say in its affairs. The solutions will take a lot of time, skill and money to resolve, never mind overcoming years of mistrust and betrayal. It’s all a matter of priorities and for now her priority is to consolidate the achievements won since she and Thein Sein started talking which, had you been in Burma during the days of the SLORC/SPDC, you would never have believed were possible so long as Than Shwe, Maung Aye and Khin Nyunt were running the show.

In my experience, Suu Kyi understandably plays her cards pretty close to her chest. Those who used to argue for incremental change are not in a position now to criticise her for moving slowly.

My biggest criticism of Suu Kyi is her inability or reluctance to involve the younger generations in the management of her party and development of policies. But she is also up against the tough cultural obstacle of the elderly expecting the veneration and respect of younger people and, let’s face it, the “Uncles” of the party have paid their dues.

The “union” of Burma/Myanmar remains a work in progress and the problems are historical and deep-seated. She needs friends, not enemies, and if that means compromising with powerful and wealthy businessmen then that is what she has to do. She wouldn’t be the first politician to sleep with strange bedfellows in pursuit of greater objectives.

March 11, 2013 @ 5:53pm
by Noel Turnbull

A friend of mine whose family was in the camps always answers questions about possible resistance with the question: "What would you have done?" The situation in Myanmar is not directly analogous but the question is still a powerful one. Given what has happened in the past with elections and repression of regime opponents would you charge on or would you work to make the 2015 election democratic through some compromises and tactical manoeuvres? People sitting in the comfort of Australia ought be a bit more humble about the options. In the meantime no doubt the doubters will be out protesting against the Myanmar President when he visits Australia next week. If they are not, we will be know the answer to the question what would you have done?

Noel Turnbull

March 11, 2013 @ 8:32pm
Show previous 5 comments
by Tettoe Aung

Well, we must remember that she is also a human and not a superhuman, not a saint either. It's easy for people to find fault in someone who's doing many things at the same time while reflecting, reassessing and hindsight seems like a luxury. As long as she's been honest in whatever she do, is there a reason not to love her? The problem is in Burmese politics (as in any politics) the worshiping of the person or putting the person to the cult status. Compared to what we've got as an alternative, who else can we love?

March 12, 2013 @ 9:45am
by LeftyRoy

I dont agree with several commentators who suggest that SK cant be expected to speak up for the brutally repressed minorities.
She has gained international fame, and ( apparently) almost reverential status due to the harsh, unjust punishments perpetrated against her, yet now is seemingly willing to buddy-up with her ex-persecuters in their continual oppression of minority groups.
Nothing courageous about that.
Another example of (potential) power corrupting?
BTW, why continue with the colonial Burma?
To use the old name for Myanmar is like reffering to 21st century Australia as Van Diemans land.

March 16, 2013 @ 8:17am
by Ba Khan

I am not averse to the betterment of humanity..no sane person can be, but very serious doubts arise as to the actual nature and interests of those in question when such measures are justified to only one particular community only, forgetting that there are others also..they too are human and want to live, not to be put in concenteration camps.
In such case I really think the dual diplomacy is misleading the second largest population of the planet earth.

March 31, 2013 @ 4:17am
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