The lady plays the reconciliation game — Pavin Chachavalpongpun
JUNE 13 — Myanmar’s democracy champion and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi begins a two-week visit to Europe today. She will visit France at the invitation of President Francois Hollande, as well as Norway, Switzerland and Britain, where she will speak before the British Parliament. In Stockholm, she is scheduled to officially receive the Nobel Peace Prize 21 years late.
Two weeks ago, Suu Kyi visited Thailand, the first time she had stepped outside Myanmar in 24 years. She met Myanmar migrants, held talks with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and attended the World Economic Forum in Bangkok. Her evident popularity may have irked Myanmar President Thein Sein, who decided to cancel his attendance at the forum.
Suu Kyi’s overseas trips are significant for two main reasons. Firstly, she is striving to reaffirm her legitimate role in Myanmar politics. It would be naive to think she has no intention of challenging the old military elite for the top post at the next general election in 2015.
Her National League for Democracy (NLD)’s overwhelming win in the April by-election has boosted her confidence. The fact that hundreds of Myanmar migrant workers and refugees in Thailand turned up to welcome her also attest to the support she commands.
It is not often that the outside world hears about Suu Kyi’s policy on the ethnic minorities. The Myanmar crisis has long been depicted merely as a clash between the junta and the opposition; in reality, ethnic conflict has continued to define the country’s politics.
Suu Kyi’s visit to the Myanmar refugees at a Thai border camp, many of them Karen who fled the fighting, reveals the broad strokes of her approach to addressing the wellbeing of ethnic minorities in her country.
Secondly, while competition between Suu Kyi and the leaders in Naypyidaw is inevitable, she has chosen to play the game of reconciliation for the sake of maintaining a political balance of power.
But this should not be construed as an end to the protracted political conflict anytime soon. The military has played an immense part in politics for decades and while democratisation has restrained its role, it still holds a 25-per cent share of parliamentary seats and controls domestic order and foreign relations.
It is too soon to predict how long the truce with Suu Kyi will last. So far, she has wasted no time in forging a campaign for greater political openness.
It is true she will have a huge influence on the West’s decision to lift sanctions against Myanmar. The permission granted her to embark on these overseas trips signals the state’s informal appointment of Suu Kyi as Myanmar’s goodwill ambassador.
Accordingly, she is expected to actively support the political reforms initiated by her rivals in the army. She may be tasked to tell the world that Myanmar is becoming a “normal” country again. The objective is to seek international recognition of the Thein Sein regime, which is crucial if the decades-old sanctions are to be completely lifted.
These sanctions have hurt Myanmar’s powerful leaders, some of whom have stepped down. The country’s determination to have sanctions removed explains why it was enthusiastic to play host to Asean in 2014; the chairmanship will surely legitimise the Myanmar regime, at least at the regional level.
Suu Kyi now appears to lead a campaign for the lifting of sanctions. One of the most important items on the agenda of her European trip would be to convince Western governments that democratisation in Myanmar is genuine and for the people.
It is also worth noting that on her trip to Thailand, she was accompanied by younger NLD members. It is a positive sign of her effort to cultivate successors to the older members of her party. The lack of educational opportunities in Myanmar during the years of political conflict has led to a lost generation of intellectuals.
These young faces will help inject new ideas into Myanmar politics, long dominated by the norm of militarism. Suu Kyi will need to reinvent herself as a leader able to connect with young voters, in paving the way for electoral success in three years’ time. — Today
* Pavin Chachavalpongpun is Associate Professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for South-east Asian Studies.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.