YANGON, April 1 — Soe Thein is a pious man. Every evening he kneels before a Buddhist shrine in his Yangon home to pray for the only woman he believes can lead Myanmar to a brighter future.
“I pray for Aung San Suu Kyi’s health and long life,” says Soe Thein, formerly a political prisoner and senior member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
“Who could replace her?”
Suu Kyi’s role in a reforming Myanmar will be no less essential after her strong performance in today’s historic by-elections, winning a seat in a parliament dominated by the military and the rival party it created.
But after two decades in opposition, much of it spent as a prisoner of the former junta, Suu Kyi now faces a slew of unfamiliar challenges. She must find her place in a perhaps hostile lower house while nurturing her crucial relationship with reformist President Thein Sein and managing the expectations of a nation impatient for change after decades of isolation, poverty and military misrule.
“Converting people’s expectations into political reality is the big challenge now,” says analyst Richard Horsey, a former United Nations official in Myanmar. “And for a country as poor as Myanmar, that means addressing the plight of families and their ability to put food on the table, educate their children and look after their health.”
Just 17 months ago, Suu Kyi was under house arrest and her party outlawed. Sometimes portrayed as stubborn and unrealistic, her rapid journey from prisoner to parliamentarian is the result of a bold and pragmatic engagement with President Thein Sein that remains critical to Myanmar’s reform process.
And she has done this, so far, without eroding the adoration and moral authority she commands across Myanmar. During her election campaign, a people who once referred in fearful undertones to “The Lady” lined the streets to shout for “Mother Suu.”
“The pace of change has been breathtaking,” says Robert Cooper, counsellor to the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and a long-time friend of Suu Kyi’s, as he toured polling stations on Sunday with other EU delegates.
How will a woman famous for unyielding moral stands — in 1998 she sat in a car for six days on a country road after police stopped her visiting party members — fare in the political arena of negotiation and compromise?
The next step in Suu Kyi’s extraordinary life could reveal what Horsey calls the “essential tension” between her principled and pragmatic sides. “There has to be give and take in politics,” he says. “It remains to be seen whether she will be able to make that transition.”
Cooper, who attended Oxford University with Suu Kyi, disagrees. “She’s always been pragmatic, but she’s not had an opportunity to engage,” he says. “And principles are quite a good thing. It’s good that there is somebody who is not prepared to accept second-rate standards.”
Even the NLD’s parliamentary toehold — it occupies only a tiny fraction of the 440-seat lower house — could compel the party to redefine itself after two decades spent opposing military rule. Suu Kyi’s party was officially banned after boycotting a fraudulent 2010 election that installed Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government a year ago.
At odds with the military
The turning point came in August, when Suu Kyi was invited to meet Thein Sein, a former general, in the capital Naypyitaw. Both risked alienating their respective support bases by seizing an opportunity for reconciliation. Within months, the NLD was legal again and preparing to run in today’s by-elections.
Although Thein Sein and Suu Kyi haven’t met since, their relationship seems almost symbiotic. Suu Kyi said last week that the former general “genuinely wishes for democratic reform.”
Horsey notes that Suu Kyi’s party political broadcast on nationwide television on March 14 was “remarkably similar” to Thein Sein’s speech two weeks earlier to mark the anniversary of his government taking office.
Both stressed the importance of the rule of law, the fragility of ongoing reforms and the challenge of solving half a century of ethnic conflict.
“It’s very important that they continue to have a good working relationship because they rely on each other to maintain the momentum of these reforms,” says Horsey.
Suu Kyi’s “very first priority” upon entering parliament will be amending the constitution, says NLD campaign manager Nyan Win. This could put her on a collision course with Myanmar’s powerful and largely unreformed military.
Myanmar’s constitution, adopted after a heavily rigged referendum in 2008, reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for the military and allows the president to hand power to the armed forces chief in an ill-defined emergency.
In a speech delivered less than a week before the elections, armed forces chief General Min Aung Hlaing vowed to protect a constitution that guarantees a “political leadership role” to the military.
That clashes with Suu Kyi’s vision. The military must realise “the future of this country is their future, and that reform in this country means reform for them as well,” she told a news conference on Friday outside her lakeside home in Yangon.
Suu Kyi’s confidence is unsurprising, says a diplomat in Yangon, who asked not to be named. “She believes very strongly in her powers of persuasion, which are formidable,” he says.
Soe Thein, a prominent journalist also known by his pen-name Muang Wuntha, won a seat for the NLD in the 1990 election, whose results the regime later annulled. He notes a dramatic change in Suu Kyi’s public statements on the military.
“She used to be very confrontational,” he says.
Revamping her party
Harder to charm will be lawmakers from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), created by the former junta. It still occupies most of the parliament’s 664 seats, thanks to 2010 election held while Suu Kyi was detained.
Suu Kyi has accused the USDP of harassment, vote-buying and slander during its campaign. Soe Thein describes relations between the two parties as “bitter and confrontational.”
The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s other key relationship will be with the powerful and ambitious lower house speaker Shwe Mann, a former general with an increasingly public rivalry with the president. “Thein Sein and Shwe Mann need each other — and they both need her,” says the Yangon diplomat.
Soe Thein agrees. “The government can replace Thein Sein with someone similar or even better,” he says. “But we have nobody else of Aung San Suu Kyi’s quality.”
Suu Kyi must also revamp her own party, a challenge symbolised by the dilapidated state of its Yangon headquarters. The NLD, say critics, is short on concrete policies and the experts who might formulate them and challenge the party’s sometimes stifling lady-knows-best culture.
Conspicuously absent from its ranks are the widely admired leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group. Fearless and charismatic, they spent years in jail for their vital role in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and the monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007, both of which were brutally crushed.
They have expressed loyalty to Suu Kyi amid persistent rumours they will soon form a rival party.
“We accept the parliamentary process, but we cannot rely on parliament alone,” says Ko Ko Gyi, who spent nine of his almost 17 in jail sleeping on a bare concrete floor.
For now, he prefers “direct democracy,” citing as an example the protests that apparently encouraged President Thein Sein to last year scrap the US$3.6 billion (RM11 billion) Myitsone dam.
The United States and European Union view free and fair by-elections as the last test before they begin dismantling economic sanctions against Myanmar.
With Western companies lining up to invest in Southeast Asia’s last frontier economy, it is feared that the lifting of sanctions could be complicated if Suu Kyi doesn’t give the result of the by-election her blessing.
“We’ll have to wait and see what she has to say,” says Cooper, whose trip to Myanmar precedes a crucial April 23 meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, chaired by Catherine Ashton. “Ultimately we’ll make our own judgment, but of course we will listen to her, as we will listen to others.”
Despite NLD gripes about the campaign, irregularities reported on voting day have been minor. But that still might not satisfy Suu Kyi, hinted campaign manager Nyan Win on Thursday.
Sanctions should only be lifted at “the right time,” he says, without elaborating, adding that their removal depended on not just the election but on Myanmar’s movement toward reform.
When sanctions do come down, Suu Kyi’s influence over Western governments could diminish. Even if she remains revered, she will be one voice in parliament, potent but singular.
Suu Kyi has dismissed suggestions she would accept a position in Thein Sein’s cabinet, since this would legally oblige her to give up her parliamentary seat.
“I have no intention of leaving the parliament which I’m trying so hard to get into,” she has said.
Her age and uncertain health alone will likely rule out any bid for the presidency in 2015, when Suu Kyi will turn 70. She fell sick at least twice during her arduous election campaign, and looked and sounded frail at Friday’s press conference.
Yet the event, which involved her standing in sweltering heat for over an hour, also seemed to energise her. She answered dozens of questions with a familiar mix of bluntness and charm, and at one point ordered unruly photographers to sit down.
Later this year, Suu Kyi will attend her first session at the gargantuan parliamentary complex in the purpose-built capital Naypyitaw. She already paid an informal visit to the lower house two weeks ago, says Nyan Win.
Suu Kyi says she will look for a second home in Naypyitaw, which is a four-hour drive from the commercial capital Yangon. “Because don’t forget I have a dog,” she says, “and I have to take him with me.”
Tai Chi Toe, a gift from her son Kim, will be a welcome distraction: Naypyitaw is reputedly so dull foreign embassies have resisted moving there. — Reuters