Sunday, November 14, 2010

Time for an Aung San Suu Kyi reality check

When U2 releases a statement sharing Bono and The Edge's views on Southeast Asian politics, you know it's time to take a major reality check.

The coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi's release thus far has been breathless - not surprising given how long she has been detained and how much of an icon she has become within her country and globally.

But the emotional outpourings from international journalists, campaigners and worthy pop stars alike seem to be having just the effect that Burma's ruling generals presumably wanted - distracting attention from their sham elections.

It's far too early to know how much real freedom the generals will give Suu Kyi, what she will try to do and what impact this will have on Burma. Even genuine Burma experts seem at a loss to explain the junta's real game at the moment - see the 13, yes that's 13, theories on why they decided to hold elections, penned by academic Andrew Selth at the Lowy Interpreter.

As Nicholas Farrelly at the excellent New Mandala blog puts it: "...many difficult questions remain unanswered and nobody pretends that the future will be easy, or that Burma’s generals don’t have their next moves in mind."

In the meantime, you could do worse than read this sobering piece in The Sunday Telegraph by Justin Wintle, a critical but fair biographer of Suu Kyi. Extract:

Looking back, and comparing what has happened in Burma with what has happened among such other Southeast Asian states as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and even Vietnam since World War Two, it is difficult not to behold an extreme political polarisation between Burma's military and the more liberal elements of its population, in which any bridges between the two sides have long been swept away.

And if the army is principally responsible for the stasis that has ensued, it is arguable that Aung San Suu Kyi's principled commitment to full democracy, and her unwillingness, or inability, to make meaningful compromises, have been a significant contributor.

As for Miss Suu Kyi herself, it is tempting to think she has resigned herself to martyrdom of one sort or another, as the only means left to leave her mark.

Her critics say she is too pure, and that her actual grasp of politics is slender. They also say she made a fundamental error in the mid- 1990s, when she was at liberty, by not bringing on a younger leadership generation within her party, preferring instead to depend upon an elderly coterie made up of such democratic stalwarts as one time defence minister U Tin Oo and the journalist Win Tin, both now in their eighties.

Yet if martyrdom is her chosen path, Aung San Suu Kyi's instincts may not be so awry.

Above all she has furnished the Burmese people with a heroic model quite different from that dreary line of past warrior kings so beloved of Than Shwe and his cronies. And for that she will be remembered, inside and outside Burma for generations to come.


  1. [...] has vanished from the international headlines ever since the hotly debated elections and the release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest late last year. Around the same time there was coverage about the Thai involvement in the Burmese [...]

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