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       Volume 11 |Issue 16 | April 20, 2012 |


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Asia's Nelson Mandela

Will Daw Aung San Suu Kyi measure up to her larger than life stature now that she's won a seat in parliament?

Soraya Auer

Three weeks ago, the world watched a Southeast Asian country's by-elections with baited breath. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's iconic pro-democracy leader, also known to the world as The Lady, was campaigning for a seat in Parliament after 23 years of political struggle, 15 years of house arrest and years of personal sacrifice. The world cheered and celebrated as hopes became reality and Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), scooped up 44 of the 45 parliamentary seats available.

To witness how the Myanmarese people celebrated and how the world watched, one would think The Lady being elected to parliament was as significant as Nelson Mandela being elected president in South Africa. The celebration was, of course, justified, but it was disproportionate to the by-elections' actual significance. And no one knows better than Suu Kyi how fragile this chance towards democracy is. “It is necessary to avoid manners and actions that will make the other parties and members upset,” Suu Kyi said in a statement after her by-election win. “It is very important that NLD members take special care that the success of the people is a dignified one.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's pro-democracy leader, in a crowd of supporters following her
by-election win on April 1. Photo: AFP

Suu Kyi's party now holds less than seven percent of the seats in Parliament, a small fraction of what they won back in the general elections of 1990. The military still holds the balance of power with more than 90 percent of the 664 parliamentary seats. Even if Suu Kyi was to have a majority, the reality is, Parliament has limited power and the military has an effective veto. Unfortunately, too much importance has been attached to these by-elections; its significance has been more symbolic than practical. It is just the first step for Myanmar not actual democratic change.

This stance might dampen the world's cheery mood but even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been cautious to place too much importance on this foothold to democracy. In February, she said, “Some are a little bit too optimistic about the situation. We are cautiously optimistic. We are at the beginning of a road.”

The road she speaks of is a long one and at one point, only a few years ago, many of the international experts on Myanmarese politics had written off Suu Kyi's chances of ever stepping on that highway to power. Her release from house arrest in November 2010 was a surprise to the world but a strategic move by the military junta, which has ruled Myanmar with an iron fist for 50 years. One appearance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at her home's gate after seven years in seclusion and the world had faith again, especially considering the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) 'won' the general election just the week before. Over the course of the last 18 months, Suu Kyi has notably met with her country's president, Thein Sein, US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and last week, with UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Suu Kyi was invited to visit “her beloved Oxford” by Cameron and she responded, “Two years ago, I would have said thank you for the invitation but sorry. Now I am about to say perhaps. That is great progress.”

The truth is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made remarkable (symbolic) progress for her pro-democracy campaign in Burma. The world came to love the Nobel Laureate because she bore injustices with grace and patience, so the question is, now that she has a chance to do something in Parliament, will she measure up to her larger than life stature?

Judging from the overwhelming crowds and cries of support across her country, it would seem that Suu Kyi still embodies the hopes of the majority of Burmese. But what can she deliver them? NLD has often been criticised for failing to formulate concrete economic policies to help the impoverished nation lift its living standards, and it was no different during the by-elections' campaign, where they offered few specific proposals. This hasn't made Suu Kyi and the NLD any less attractive to voters or businessmen. This is mainly because there is hope that with Suu Kyi's presence in politics, there will be an easing of international sanctions and even an arrival of development aid.

International speculation recently suggested that Suu Kyi might be offered a cabinet position, a seemingly strong indication of change within the military government. However, as Suu Kyi said herself on the matter, “I can tell you one thing – that under the present constitution, if you become a member of the government, you have to vacate your seat in the national assembly. And I am not working so hard to get into parliament, simply to vacate my seat.” Despite Suu Kyi's determination to use her right to sit in parliament, there is the risk, however, that Suu Kyi's critical voice will be drowned out by the 600-and-something voices against her.

Much like the hope and expectation when US President Barack Obama was a fresh face to national politics, the hype surrounding Suu Kyi's future influence may be more hot air than it is concrete mixture. The relationship between the NLD and the USDP will be strained and frustrating but also potentially damaging for Suu Kyi's future. To achieve her stated aims of amending the Constitution and reaching a lasting political settlement with Burma's ethnic minorities, Suu Kyi will have to make concessions and compromises with the military regime – and too much cooperation could tarnish her image as a democratic icon.

People suggest the real test will come in 2015, in the next general election. Therefore, for now, it is probably better that NLD's influence in Parliament will be small, as it won't have to form a government and it will have the time to test its ideals and policies in the political waters.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has spent more time restricted to the walls of her home than she has being an active politician. She has been the embodiment of the people's democratic aspirations for decades and the transition into an active participant in the rough and tumble reality of politics will be a challenge, to say the least. Will she disappoint? Some speculate it is inevitable that she will as political power is a doubled edged sword. However, as it was with Mandela and may well still be with Obama, no matter the hype and premature celebrations, a symbolic step towards change is still a step worthy of the world's notice. With the permanent place she has earned in the hearts of Myanmarese and admirers around the world, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should have her greatest moments yet to come.

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