Who Doesn’t Love Suu Kyi?
By Aubrey BelfordMarch 6, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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”.
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.”