In the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi’s resounding election victory, David Watts reflects on the
tough job that lies ahead of her.
It was already dark on the outskirts of the village of Kyi when the headlights of Aung San Suu Kyi’s car picked out two old monks by the roadside, begging her to stop.
The leader of Burma’s opposition had no plans to stop at the village and needed to press on to her night stop in order not to antagonise further the military and rag-tag army of thugs who had been dogging them all day.
But no Burmese would ignore the wishes of elderly monks and so the little National League for Democracy (NLD) convoy drew to a halt.
It was a trap. The convoy was set upon and Suu Kyi’s bodyguards ringed her vehicle two to three deep to protect her physically, under strict orders not to use violence. Only the heroism of her guards saved her that night from possibly being murdered by the roadside.
It is hard to imagine that the same heroine who nearly came to such a tawdry end now reigns supreme over her nation, having seen off the forces of darkness—at least for the moment.
Having been cheated of victory in 1990, she can now claim the ‘fruits’ of 15 years under house arrest and take her place as the leading light of her nation.
The NLD’s emphatic victory, with more than 80 per cent of the vote, gave it more than half the seats in the 329-seat parliament, which allows Suu Kyi to nominate a president and form a government, remarkably overcoming the military’s grip on the body politic though it retains many powers.
Despite the initial excitement, Suu Kyi knows there is a long way to go before the government is actually formed next February. A long time for the military to scheme at ways to limit her power.
In the meantime, she urged her millions of supporters not to provoke their rivals. She also appealed to them to overcome their fears of the military, telling them: ‘We cannot be caught up in the bond of suspicion.’
She told journalists the army had told her that they wanted to ‘be with the people’ but memories of the army grab for power in 1990, when they nullified her victory and took power over the wishes of the very same people, are still strong.
But for the moment the army is staying true to its word, with President Thein Sein promising a smooth transition of power. The former junta general who resigned to lead the country’s quasi-civilian government five years ago said: ‘The election is the result of our reform process and we were able to hold it very successfully.’ He told a meeting of political leaders: ‘We will hand this process on to a new government, don’t worry about the transition.’
Addressing leaders of some 90 political parties, he said the tasks for the next government would include reconciliation, efforts to end ethnic rebellions and a push for development.
The immediate task for Suu Kyi must be building relationships with the military. Oddly enough, that might be more difficult now that she has roundly humiliated them, whereas before she would have been in a familiar position, that of a supplicatory woman. Asian generals are not familiar with the notion of taking orders from women, whether in uniform or not.
But then Suu Kyi must come to terms with showing the people that to become a politician of real influence, she will have to adopt positions and take decisions that many of them will find distasteful.
No more the ice queen sitting atop a throne untainted by the throng below, she will have to get down and dirty with the day-to-day issues, mixing it with soldier-politicians who have been playing games for years. And on many issues she will find herself on outsider, dealing with men who have had no exposure to the realities of the outside world.
First and foremost she will have to see that there is a real, heartfelt and concerted effort to address the country’s huge problem with the displaced Muslim Rohingya people on the border with India. At the moment, militant Buddhists have been pretty much allowed to run riot, harassing, killing and levelling their villages where they can as a low-cost way for the government to rid themselves of the problem. Not surprisingly this has not worked but has served to bring Myanmar a lot of negative publicity internationally. Urban dwellers like Suu Kyi should not imagine this is a problem that is going to remain on the margins if it is not tackled promptly: the arrival of democracy is going to engender great expectations and feelings that the army, rightly or wrongly, is not the big, bad wolf that it once was, which can be sent in to tackle these things. Rohingya problems could be coming to urban neighbourhoods in central Myanmar if not confronted head on. The same applies to the myriad of other minorities whose interests will have to be taken into consideration.
On the international front, Suu Kyi has already established herself as the face of her nation and the military have her to thank for buying them a ticket to the outside world. That’s a role that will become ever more important as the government builds on its credibility in bringing in heavy-weight investment and seeks to build a portfolio of loans and finance to take things forward.
And just as writers the world over love to make their own estimates of a person’s importance: no, Suu Kyi is no female Mahatma Gandhi. She is a new symbol of democracy without peer.