Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Aung San Suu Kyi-The halo slips

Running for president comes with risks

USUALLY she coyly evades the question. On June 6th Aung San Suu Kyi at last answered it: “I want to run for president and I’m quite frank about it.” As by far the most popular politician in Myanmar, daughter of its independence hero and the leader of its opposition, the ambition is understandable. Moreover, in 2015, the year of the next election, she will turn 70. It may be then or never. But many obstacles stand in her way. Removing them requires political skills that may be at odds with her record of saintly probity.

The biggest blockage on her road to the presidency is a constitution written in part to prevent her ever getting there. Imposed on the country in a farcical referendum in 2008, it bars her from the office, as the widow of a foreigner and mother of two others. And it gives the army a permanent 25% of seats in parliament, just enough to block constitutional changes. Perhaps the army would welcome the boost to Myanmar’s international standing her presidency could bring. But amending the constitution will raise other problems—such as demands by some of the country’s ethnic minorities for a fully federal system.

Miss Suu Kyi seems to be doing her best to reassure the generals. This month she has spoken of the “special place in the hearts of our people” held by the army, which kept her in various degrees of confinement for two decades. This perturbs some of her supporters, who have endured jail and torture at the army’s hands. But many will accept that, in order to complete Myanmar’s transition to something approaching true democracy, the generals have to be stroked and placated.

Carping about her professed “fondness” for the army, however, is a reminder that as a presidential candidate she will face scrutiny and criticism of a sort she never endured as a persecuted opposition icon. This comes even from younger members of her own party, the National League for Democracy, some of whom grumble about the autocratic decision-making that devotion to Miss Suu Kyi has allowed.

Criticism is even coming from some foreigners. When Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, visited Myanmar with a suitcase full of aid commitments last month, his meeting with Miss Suu Kyi went badly. She seemed uninterested, the Japanese felt, and lectured them irrelevantly on health issues. A recent party of foreign businessmen was similarly unimpressed, bewildered at her argument that Myanmar needs horticulture more than garment factories. The country had a promising garment-export industry in the early 1990s that was hit by sanctions and consumer boycotts. It could be rebuilt without abusive labour conditions. American policy wonks have been appalled at the ignorance displayed by her economic advisers.

Miss Suu Kyi’s halo has even slipped among foreign human-rights lobbyists, disappointed at her failure to make a clear stand on behalf of the Rohingya minority, Muslims in the country’s west, who suffer terrible discrimination. But in an example of the fine line she must tread, some Burmese were upset when last month she spoke out against a ban on Rohingya families near the Bangladeshi border having more than two children.

Miss Suu Kyi, however, has one unassailable strong point. She may be misinformed, misguided, even high-handed. But nobody questions her fundamental integrity, nor her desire to do the best for Myanmar’s people. One long-time supporter in Yangon blames any criticism on “bad press fed by the other side”. Most would share his analysis: “The people hold faith in the party and still believe in her.” The Economist

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