Even the most repressive regimes can reform,
and even the most closed societies can open
- Election win could herald new era for Burma
- An unfamiliar challenge for Suu Kyi within the system
- Support for end to sanctions will strengthen reform bloc in government
- Suu Kyi’s strength lies in her ability to influence western countries
There will be no silencing Suu Kyi
Sydney Morning Herald
April 2, 2012 – 11:34AM
Just 17 months ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, her party was outlawed and anyone caught possessing her photograph would have been jailed.
Today, there is euphoria on the streets as the 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and her throngs of supporters savour a landslide by-election victory.
The win could herald a new era for impoverished Burma after 50 years of repressive military rule.
However, transforming herself from acclaimed dissident to the leader of a small group in a parliament dominated by military-linked parties and appointees will be an unfamiliar challenge for Suu Kyi, who was under arrest for a total of 15 years, and so despised by the country’s rulers they could not utter her name in public.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will occupy only a fraction of the 664 seats in parliament, possessing little ability to decide legislation among benches occupied by mostly hostile opponents.
She says her aim will be to give a voice to the aspirations of the more than 60 million people who have suffered from decades of incompetent rule.
There will be no silencing Suu Kyi, a woman of unyielding principle who once sat in a car on a country road for six days after police blocked her visiting supporters.
Crucial to Burma’s future will be the relationship she develops with reformist president Thein Sein, a former military general.
After meeting Suu Kyi last August in the capital, Naypyidaw, Thein Sein has overseen a raft of reforms that took the world by surprise, including easing media restrictions, revamping economic and trade laws, and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government needs Suu Kyi’s presence in parliament to give it legitimacy as it pushes for the lifting of sanctions by the United States, the European Union, Australia and other nations.
Whether that happens will largely depend on Suu Kyi.
Last Friday, she declared that campaigning in 44 of the 45 seats her party were contesting was not free and fair because of widespread irregularities.
In a country with little experience in holding democratic elections, attempts to cheat at the village and township level were not unexpected.
The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party was accused of voter intimidation, harassment and vote-buying.
Despite this, Suu Kyi should now declare the ballot fair enough to endorse the easing of international sanctions, which will open the floodgates for badly needed international investment, aid and technical support.
Western companies are ready to pour massive investments into one of the world’s last frontiers.
Suu Kyi’s endorsement on the easing of sanctions is likely to strengthen the position of Thein Sein and other reformers who are said to be under enormous pressure from government hardliners opposing the reforms.
Sitting in parliament, Suu Kyi will be well placed to influence ruling MPs on the merits of democratic reform, particularly if divisions emerge among them.
However, there seems little chance the military-linked parties and appointees will agree to give up their power before the general election due in 2015. Suu Kyi’s strength will be her ability to influence Western countries in how they respond to developments.
She has rejected speculation that she would accept a position in Thein Sein’s cabinet that would require her to quit the seat she has just won.
However, Thein Sein should offer Suu Kyi the role of roving goodwill ambassador for a country emerging from isolation.
She would be a brilliant advocate abroad while continuing to speak out for her people at home.
One of Suu Kyi’s first tasks as an MP will be to find a house in purpose-build Naypyidaw, a four-hour drive from her lakeside home in Rangoon.
“Because, don’t forget, I have a dog,” she told reporters. “And I will have to take him with me.”
Lindsay Murdoch is South-East Asia correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald