State Counsellor – or a would-be queen?

The qualities that made Aung San Suu Kyi a heroine under house arrest are causing concerns now that she is in power, writes her biographer, Peter Popham

 

As I write, Burma’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is touring Thailand on her second overseas trip since taking power three months ago. She was met on her arrival in Bangkok by ‘adoring Burmese fans’, it is reported. So far, so normal: masses of adoring fans have greeted ‘The Lady’ on practically all her travels, stretching back to her sensational debut outside Rangoon’s Shwedagon pagoda in August 1988, as the new-found star of the democracy movement.

 

But in the decades that have elapsed since then, other things have changed. As the Burmese news site Mizzima reported, ‘Journalists attempting to cover [her] three-day visit… will face severe restrictions… Reporters have been told they will have no opportunity to question [her], even during a joint news conference in Bangkok with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.’

 

No questions at all? Not even a couple of gentle lobs from the court favourites? That is the behaviour one might expect of an autocrat such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who has never shown much interest in free and frank exchanges. But Suu Kyi is far and away the most popular politician in her country, having been swept to power in November’s general election with a landslide majority for her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Yet she chooses not to be quizzed. The ‘press conference’ would instead be a merely an announcement or two, and a photo opportunity.

 

It didn’t use to be like that. When I first met Suu Kyi in 2002, during a brief break in her many years of detention, we foreign correspondents formed an orderly queue in the NLD headquarters in Rangoon and went away happy after substantive and wide-ranging interviews. But today things are very different. On the last occasion that Thomas Fuller, then the New York Times man in the region, asked Suu Kyi’s chief of staff when he could expect to be granted an interview with the Lady, he received the one word answer, ‘Never!’

 

What has gone wrong between Burma’s State Counsellor – her fresh-minted role – and the Fourth Estate?

 

The process of estrangement has been slow but steady. Suu Kyi has always been visibly uncomfortable answering questions about her private life – about the effect of her years of detention on her relations with her two sons, for example – and how she coped with solitude. Foreign journalists could not resist trying to get an emotional reaction from her. Instead this proud and dignified woman limited herself to saying that her party colleagues, locked up in vile prisons rather than the relative comfort of home, had suffered far worse.

 

This was doubtless true. But her reluctance to admit that she had the same human frailties as everyone else, and that she grieved bitterly for the years of forced separation from her husband and children, has done her no favours. It deprived the military junta of the satisfaction of knowing how badly they had hurt her, but it left the rest of the world with the impression that fundamentally she was a rather cold person, for whom overweening political ambition trumped everything else.

 

But her aversion to being grilled on personal matters was only a minor problem. Far more problematic is the enormous difficulty she has found in saying anything about the Rohingya.

 

Bloody sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan state, in Burma’s far west, erupted in the spring of 2012, just as Suu Kyi was about to resume travelling abroad. Some saw a connection between the events: that the violence was inspired by her enemies, determined to embarrass her outside the country. That was certainly the effect the issue had, and continues to have. Burma’s Buddhists, more than 90 per cent of the population, have long exhibited a strong streak of anti-Muslim paranoia, showing little sympathy for the embattled and stateless Rohingya minority in Arakan. Conversely, the human rights community abroad – for whom Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, had long been a heroine – regards the plight of the Rohingya as one of the most flagrant cases of collective persecution in the world, and the Rohingya as a uniquely deprived community.

In spring 2012, sectarian violence erupted between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma’s western Arakan state
In spring 2012, sectarian violence erupted between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma’s western Arakan state

The violence of 2012, which cost hundreds of lives and resulted in some 150,000 Rohingya being forced into squalid camps, thus put Suu Kyi on the spot: would she reinforce her global reputation by standing up for them? Or would she pander to the traditional hostility of her Buddhist votebank by saying nothing, or blaming the victims? In the end, to the dismay of millions of her foreign supporters, she has twisted and turned on the horns of this dilemma, refusing to condemn either side but offering precious little sympathy or encouragement to the Rohingya.

 

Her fence-sitting helps to explain why the NLD scored so well in November’s election, but it also accounts for her decision to stop talking to the media, and, since the election, to order her party colleagues to do the same. The Rohingya issue is a more complex one than many simplistic media reports make out, but the community’s sufferings are real, acute and long-running. By refusing to acknowledge that fact, refusing to offer them any prospect of improvement in their living standards and banning use of the term ‘Rohingya’, Suu Kyi opens herself to fierce interrogation. But her response, as we see in Thailand, is to close down the opportunities for dialogue.

 

It is a decision that should set alarm bells ringing. Because although Suu Kyi’s election victory shows democracy once again in the ascendant in Burma, she herself has long had autocratic tendencies. And

The nature of Burma’s political culture means that its leaders – whether produced by the ballot box or by competition between generals – will always be tempted by the prospect of ruling as if they were pre-modern monarchs.

 

In his book Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know, the distinguished Asia scholar David Steinberg has this to say about how power works in Burma: ‘Traditional concepts of the state in Burma,’ he writes, ‘derive from an Indian model of the god-king… These concepts remain relevant today… The head of state remains inextricably linked to Buddhism… The ruler claims to rule with metta, or Buddhist loving kindness… their motivations are pure, and their edicts thus must be obeyed.’

 

He goes on, ‘There is an unwillingness to share power since… to do so diminishes the authority of the leader. Power is thus a zero-sum game… The status of leadership and the finite nature of power thus leads to its personalisation. Loyalty is to the individual with power (this particular king, chairman or leader), not to the institution. This has been evident from the Pagan Dynasty [9th to 13th centuries] and since then throughout all the kings and in the republic.’

 

Since 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi has struggled with tireless devotion to end Burma’s military dictatorship and replace it with parliamentary democracy. Those efforts have now been crowned with success. How ironical if the ultimate result of her struggle should be, not true democracy, but the creation of something more akin to the monarchical system banished by the British back in 1885.

 

Peter Popham, a former foreign correspondent with The Independent, is the author of The Lady and the Peacock: the Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, a best-seller translated into several languages, and The Lady and the Generals, published earlier this year.

 

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