Like all political prisoners-turned politicians, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is coping with the endless demands of actual politics that she was safe from while in prison. But not every dissident enters politics in a country as hopelessly divided by religion and ethnicity as Burma. (And, one might add, not every dissident has done as impressive a job in making the transition.)In The Diplomat, William Lloyd-George reports that Suu Kyi has earned the scorn of many Kachin—a distinct people living in the north of Burma—over her hesitance to come down hard on the military’s offensives against Kachin nationalists. A handful in Britain “boycotted” Suu Kyi’s visit to the UK:
[The UK Kachin] demonstration’s message was clearly directed at Suu Kyi, and what they argue has been weak criticism on her behalf against the military for the ongoing conflict. Placards were held high: “Reforming in central Burma, paying lives in Kachin State” and, “Enough silent democracy in solving the Kachin Crisis,” they read, clearly criticizing Suu Kyi’s diplomatic approach to the crisis and unwillingness to condemn the state military.
Meanwhile, an entirely different ethnic group were also protesting on Suu Kyi’s last day in Britain—the much-maligned Rohingya Muslims, who are found chiefly in the Arakan state on Burma’s western coast:
Since the crisis in Arakan state started, many democracy activists have voiced their hatred for the Rohingya people and pleaded for the government to deny them Burmese citizenship. While Suu Kyi, and these so-called democracy activists, should be focusing on human rights abuses committed by the military, extra-judicial killings by the military of the Rohingya, and aiming for some form of conflict resolution, it appears that human rights might have been put aside for impartiality, public support and to satisfy deeply felt racism.
In suggesting that Suu Kyi is merely courting support (let alone “satisfying racism”), Lloyd-George seems to miss the thread that connects her “diplomatic approach” on the Kachin issue with her restraint on the issue of Rohingya Muslims. After her decades-long struggle against the junta’s authoritarianism, Suu Kyi has emerged with no illusions about the potential for ethnic violence that could blow all Burma sky high.In this delicate moment for Burma, Suu Kyi seems to understand that she must weigh her words with great care. The western liberal narrative that “reform” is going to lead to democracy and freedom in Burma is, as usual, both wildly overoptimistic and wildly at variance with difficult facts on the ground. Suu Kyi seems to get that, but it is not clear that understanding the problems of Burma is enough to solve them.One would have hoped that the dicey progress of the Arab Spring would have taught the supposedly “sophisticated” and “worldly” internationalist cheerleaders just how complicated the interplay between democracy, religion and identity in different places around the world. But to hope that Wilsonian cheerleaders can learn from history is perhaps as naive and otherworldly as the perpetual liberal hope that international life can best be understood as a morality play, with the “good guys,” multicultural, pro-feminist, secular democrats, guaranteed to win in the end.We at Via Meadia have written cautiously about Burma’s ongoing transformation from dictatorship to democracy: We applaud the country’s progress but warn against carelessness and excessive haste in a place where ethnic and religious divides can easily lead to civil war rather than to civic peace. In the face of public protests and boycotts, Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be taking the same view, i.e. the long view.It may be that nobody can build a solid and democratic Burmese state given the tensions inherent in an artificial polity with arbitrary frontiers. The military government now yielding to transition was an ugly and bloody thing, but we need to understand that it was a product of Burma’s difficult history and that many of the same problems that it faced — and in many cases exacerbated — will be there to trouble whatever system attempts to take its place.So far, Aung San Suu Kyi has done a remarkable job at navigating the many pitfalls in her path. But in some ways, her path forward will be even harder than that other prisoner turned founding father: Nelson Mandela. Burma today is more bitterly divided than the South Africa Mandela was elected to rule, with less of a common identity among its peoples and fewer economic resources. In the long run, Burma can become a rich country, but getting there will be much harder than most of Burma’s new friends in the west quite understand. And given Burma’s strategic location, its internal divisions will attract meddling foreign powers who hope to shape the country’s evolution to serve their own geopolitical goals.