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Suu Kyi Plays A Long Game; Burma Is Not Out of the Woods

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.

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  • Derek Tonkin

    I would not agree that Burma today is “more bitterly divided” than the South Africa Mandela was elected to rule.

    Tribalism in South Africa has no parallel in Burma where peoples of different nationalities often live in harmony in close proximity, with widespread intermarriage. Nor has anything like “apartheid” by the while minority against the non-white majority ever existed in Burma. Some major groups like Burmans, Shans and Mons share a common culture. Karens are to be found all over eastern, southern and western Burma and it is at times hard to say who is pure Karen still speaking one of the mutually unintelligible Karen languages and who is Burman-Karen speaking mainly the Burmese language. Suu Kyi’s mother was brought up in a Karen environment and her maternal grandfather was converted to Christianity. Little surprise that Suu Kyi chose to be elected in a part-Karen community south of Rangoon.

    True, the British divided the country into “Burma Proper” and the “Frontier Areas”, but in general the British only continued the existing division between the old Burmese Kingdom and adjacent peoples, some still living in pretty remote areas.

    One day perhaps we might learn something of the exchanges between Mandela and Suu Kyi. They never met, but in the mid 1990s, according to my South African sources, were in contact by telephone. It is of interest that Bishop Tutu and Suu Kyi maintain a very close relationship, but Mandela has kept well away from the Burmese imbroglio. There was clearly no meeting of minds.

  • Tun

    Via Meadia, what is ethnic and what is Rohingya? You are burning Arakan State. Mr. Suu Kyi does not need to solve what you are saying. Rohingyas or who, now they are living there. The problem is an another, do you know what? if not, come to Rakhine and study and the world and religions….. the source, what.

  • Tide

    I still don’t understand why people have not seen the patterns of Suu Kyi being a hidden-dictator. It’s beyond her lack of diplomacy, e.g. Mr.Ibrahim Gambari was turned away without given any reasons from her entrance. Remember, the loud-speaker greeting? Suu Kyi does not respect any law when she does not want to. Suu Kyi goes to courts that govern Myanmar laws when she wants to, for example her fight with her cousin (physical fight or domestic violence – she slapped her cousin, and her cousin punched her back). Suu Kyi knows very minimal of Myanmar and the society, and she clearly listens and looks up to Western countries for now. As soon as Western leaders turn their back, she would be sulking first, then go back to generals. Just wait and pray that she lives long.

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