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Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi Walks Fine Line In Her New Role

Jun 5, 2013
Originally published on June 5, 2013 6:19 pm

To her many admirers in the international community, Aung San Suu Kyi remains one of the world's best known democracy icons.

But in Myanmar, also known as Burma, she is now very much a politician who is being criticized for trying to cooperate with the former military rulers who kept her under house arrest for nearly two decades.

If you want to see the old, iconic Aung San Suu Kyi, just head to the bustling headquarters of her party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, in Yangon, the country's largest city and former capital.

Go past the tables selling Suu Kyi T-shirts, coffee mugs and calendars. Step in the door and look to the right, up on the wall. There she is, looking down at you, steely and defiant. The caption reads: "There will be change, because all the military has are guns."

On a recent trip to Japan, though, her message seemed to be that she's a politician and presidential hopeful now, so get used to it.

"I find that people are very interested in the fact that I said I would like to be president," Suu Kyi said. "And yet, I would quite like to meet the leader of any political party who doesn't really want to be the head of government."

In other words, all those years under house arrest and defying a military dictatorship gave her a heap of political capital, and she's going to spend it.

A Target For Protesters

Suu Kyi spent quite a bit of it in March, when, for the first time, she became the target of protesters in the town of Letpadaung.

She traveled there to express her backing of a controversial copper mine that has Chinese investors. Residents bitterly complained that she had sold them out, but it looks like her investment has paid off.

U Win Htein, a member of the NLD's Central Executive Committee, says that Suu Kyi's handling of the Letpadaung inquiry won her respect within the ruling party, known as the USDP, and the military.

"She's trying to prove to the people that she has the ability to lead the nation," he says. "Because when the report of Letpadaung town was announced, many people from the USDP as well as from the army were satisfied that she is for real. She is for real, and she is fair."

For months, Suu Kyi had tried to get face time with the generals, but they wouldn't meet with her.

But on March 26, she was invited to sit in the front row with the generals at the Armed Forces Day parade. Her supporters saw it as a breakthrough, after months of conciliatory remarks to the military, like this one in a December interview with the BBC:

"People criticize me for saying that, but I have to say this is the truth. I am fond of the army. This is something that is entrenched in my being," she said. "I was taught that my father was the father of the army, and therefore they were part of my family."

Her father, Gen. Aung San, also led the struggle for independence from Britain.

Reconciliation, Rather Than Confrontation

But Suu Kyi's efforts to cozy up to the military rubbed many citizens the wrong way. So have her muted comments on recent ethnic and sectarian violence across the country. But U Win Htein says that Suu Kyi's strategy of reconciliation instead of confrontation is a sensible one.

"National reconciliation means everybody — ethnic people, as well as the army," Win Htein explains. "So her determination is to achieve her goal, and that's why she's walking a very delicate line. And she won't abandon her principles."

Some observers think that Suu Kyi struck some sort of deal with the generals, allowing her to play the game of politics as long as she doesn't threaten them. No proof of such a deal has emerged.

Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, says that while the world may regard Suu Kyi as an opposition leader, Myanmar's political system is traditionally not one that brooks any opposition.

"What we have is a situation where they're very used to top-down, unquestioned power," Turnell says. "So anyone who's sitting out of the system, in a system that is still very new and untested, really has to negotiate things really carefully."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This has been a time of change for one of the world's most famous democracy icons. Aung San Suu Kyi was a political prisoner in Myanmar, also known as Burma, for nearly two decades. Now, she's the leader of the opposition in the country's parliament. She's being criticized for trying to cooperate with the former military rulers who once kept her under house arrest.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: If you want to see the old, iconic Aung San Suu Kyi, just head for the bustling headquarters of her party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, in Yangon.

Go past the tables selling Suu Kyi T-shirts, coffee mugs and calendars. Step in the door and look up to the right, up on the wall. There she is, looking down at you, steely and defiant. The picture's caption reads: There Will Be Change Because All The Military Have Are Guns.

On a recent trip to Japan, though, her message seemed to be that she's a politician and presidential hopeful now, so get used to it.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: I find that people are very interested in the fact that I said I would like to be president. And yet, I would quite like to meet the leader of any political party who doesn't really want to be the head of government.

KUHN: In other words, nearly two decades of being under house arrest and defying a military dictatorship has given her a heap of political capital and she's going to spend it. Suu Kyi spent quite a bit of it in March, when, for the first time, she became the target of protesters in the town of Letpadaung. She traveled there to express her backing for a controversial Chinese invested copper mine.

Residents bitterly complained that she had sold them out, but it looks like her investment has paid off. U Win Htein is a member of the NLD's Central Executive Committee. He says that Suu Kyi's handling of the Letpadaung inquiry won her respect within the ruling party, known as the USDP, and the military.

U WIN HTEIN: She's trying to prove to people that she has the ability to lead the nation. Because when the report of Letpadaung was announced, many people from the USDP as well as from the army were satisfied that she is for real. She is for real, and she is fair.

KUHN: For months, Suu Kyi had tried to get face time with the generals, but they wouldn't meet with her. But on March 26th, she was invited to sit in the front row with the generals at the Armed Forces Day parade. Her supporters saw it as a big breakthrough, after months of conciliatory remarks to the military, like this one in a December interview with the BBC.

KYI: People criticize me for saying that, but I have to say this is the truth. I am fond of the army. This is something that is entrenched in my being. I was taught that my father was the father of the army, and therefore, they were part of my family.

KUHN: Her father, General Aung San, also led the struggle for independence from Britain. But Suu Kyi's efforts to cozy up to the military rubbed many citizens the wrong way. So have her muted comments on recent ethnic and sectarian violence across the country. But U Win Htein says that Suu Kyi's strategy of reconciliation instead of confrontation is a sensible one.

HTEIN: National reconciliation means everybody, ethnic people, as well as army. So her determination is to achieve her goal, and that's why she's walking very delicate line. And she won't abandon her principle.

KUHN: Some folks are tempted to think that Suu Kyi struck some sort of deal with the generals, allowing her to play the game of politics as long as she doesn't threaten them. No proof of such a deal has emerged yet. Sean Turnell is a Burma expert at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He reminds us that while we may call Suu Kyi an opposition leader, Burma's political system is traditionally not one that brooks any opposition.

SEAN TURNELL: What we have is a situation where they're very used to top-down, unquestioned power. And so anyone who's sitting out of the system, a system that is still very new and untested, really has to negotiate things really carefully.

KUHN: So just because Suu Kyi speaks the language of Western-style democracy, that doesn't mean she's operating in one. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.