Can Suu Kyi fix Myanmar?
The country teemed with optimism when Aung San Suu Kyi took her seat in parliament this week. But can a great human-rights leader now rise to the challenges of political reform, ethnic unrest and homelessness?
As Yangon Circular Railway makes its way around Myanmar’s biggest city a boy is dancing in the aisle while another plays a toy electric guitar. Commuters smile benignly. A young vendor, her face painted with thanaka, a paste made from bark, pauses with her basket of freshly cut pineapple to watch him dance, and the teeming, chaotic city drifts past outside the open windows.
Along the 46km loop, which takes in 39 stations, shanties’ rusty corrugated roofs lean against the track, lush paddy fields and faded colonial houses pass by, skyscraper building sites look busy, and groups of cheerful boys play volleyball on makeshift courts behind the railside houses.
For less than €1 you can take this train for a three-hour journey that shows you the optimism that has pervaded Myanmar (which used to be known as Burma) since Aung San Suu Kyi took her seat in parliament on Monday, after a landslide election win in November for her party, the National League of Democracy.
Wearing flowers in her hair, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate sat poised in the cavernous parliament building in Naypyidaw, the purpose-built new capital. It was a landmark moment for the first democratically elected government since the military junta took power in 1962.
But the slow pace at which the trains of Yangon Circular Railway chug around the city also echoes the sluggishness of democratic reform in this southeast Asian nation. A constitutional bar has prevented Suu Kyi from becoming president – a role that 80 per cent of the electorate gave her in November’s polls. On top of this political challenge her government must try to bring peace to Myanmar’s war-torn ethnic states and stop attacks on the Rohingya Muslims, in Rakhine state, by the Buddhist majority.
As the view from the train shows, Myanmar also has a desperately poor economy that is in need of reform. That process started in 2011, when the military leader and current president, Thein Sein, started to open up the country.
Suu Kyi and her party won the polls in 1990, but she spent 15 of the next 22 years under house arrest after the junta annulled the election. She now has to find a way to suspend section 59 (f) of the constitution, which bars from the presidency anybody, like her, with a foreign spouse or children, without forcing the generals into a position where they feel cornered.
So far the generals seem content with the transition. In a televised address last week Thein Sein said: “Even though there were difficulties and challenges, we were able to bring a democratic transformation eventually. This is a triumph for all Myanmar’s people.”
Expectations are high among Myanmar’s 51 million people that Suu Kyi will be able to resolve the country’s myriad problems.
But the challenges are great. Even within the National League of Democracy it can be hard for members to find common goals. The party encompasses a spectrum of views and is united only by its quest for democracy and its leadership by Suu Kyi.
“The people are very optimistic. Our motto is ‘Change’, and I believe that Aung San Suu Kyi can change the constitution and lead; she can solve the issues,” says Kyaw Min San, one of the party’s newly elected legislators.
The 38-year-old lawyer, who was a first-time candidate, is now a representative for the Pako region, 80km north of Yangon (which was formerly known as Rangoon). He has spent his career working for rural law and human rights.
“The constitution is a barrier, but we have to improve the constitution; we have to amend it to make it a real democracy.
“What people now hope for is a fully democratic government, and they also want better social security and for the economy to improve, as well as to have human rights in the country.”
How will the issue of the presidency be resolved? Kyaw Min San says that he doesn’t know. There is speculation that the next president, who is due to take over from Thein Sein by the end of next month, could be a woman, a member of an ethnic minority or even, to smooth the transition of power, a former general.
That last possibility is not as remote as it sounds, but half a century of military rule means the most commonly expressed wish is for Suu Kyi to take up the role. “The people want Aung San Suu Kyi to be our president. That is the first step,” Kyaw Min San says.
Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, who achieved independence for the country from British rule, after the second World War, was able to bring together various national groups, and there are high hopes that she will also manage this.
“Sanda Aung”, is a 24-year-old domestic worker from Kawhmu township, which is Aung San Suu Kyi’s constituency. (She has asked to use a pseudonym because, even though people are prepared to speak out more, there is still anxiety about doing so too openly: in the month before the election, Amnesty International estimates, at least 19 prisoners of conscience were jailed, bringing the total that it is aware of to 110; hundreds of others are awaiting trial.)
Asked who she thinks will be the next president, Aung is confident that it will be “someone whom Daw Aung San Suu Kyi trusts in”. Daw, which means Aunt, is an honorific akin to Madame; Sanda Aung’s use of it is typical of the respect that Suu Kyi is held in here, and of the belief that she will make the right decisions and lead the country out of hardship.
“Everything will be okay . . . I feel optimistic because we can speak out openly at the moment. The big economic factors are the jade industry and also confiscated farmland,” she says.
Illegal jade trade
The country’s jade trade, much of which involves trafficking stones to China, is reputed to be worth about half of the country’s gross domestic product. It is controlled by the military.
Su Su Pae, a 27-year-old IT worker, shares the concern about Myanmar’s natural resources. “Also, a lack of transparency has made an economic crisis in our country,” she says. “Overall I have an optimistic outlook about the future. It is sure to improve if we really reform our country. Certainly, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to resolve issues with the ethnic minorities, although there may be some difficulties to begin with . . . She is a very important person for the people of Myanmar. The main challenges she will face are employee-employer relations, educational reform and corruption.”
Min Aung Myo Lin, a 23-year-old student, believes that Suu Kyi faces many challenges. “There are a lot of problems which the government of 2010 was not able to solve. Maybe she will have difficulty dealing with problems such as homelessness, confiscated farmlands, democratic education, crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and environmental damage,” he says. “However, she will be able to handle those problems because she possesses a higher quality than the military government.” But he believes that resolving ethnic issues will be too hard a challenge.
Internationally, pressure is growing for Suu Kyi to say something about the fate of the Rohingya, in the western state of Rakhine, who have faced violent persecution at the hands of Myanmar’s Buddhists, the country’s largest ethnic group.
Longer-term residents in Myanmar believe the demands of government will prove a major test for Suu Kyi. After her years as a popular figure of civil disobedience who has shown great individual courage in standing down the military government, there are worries that the day-to-day demands of ruling the country could prove difficult, especially when it comes to making hard choices about dealing with Muslim or Chinese minorities.
The junta’s legacy will prove tough to unravel – the toughest challenge yet for the lady so beloved of the commuters on Yangon Circular Railway.
Barred from the presidency: Aung San Suu Kyi and the constitution
She is barred from the presidency because of her foreign husband and children: she had two sons with the late British historian Michael Aris.
Although the military-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is led by retired soldiers, has conceded defeat in the election, Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy needs the support of the military if it is to govern effectively: the military is guaranteed 25 per cent of seats in parliament.
Three key ministries – home affairs, defence and border affairs – are also chosen by the military’s commander-in-chief.
The way the process unfolds in coming weeks is also complex. Even the opening of parliament, in Naypyidaw, was a protracted affair. So far the lower house, the Pyithu Hluttaw, and the upper house, the Amyotha Hluttaw, have opened; the combined parliament, or Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, meets on Monday.
Each of the two chambers will nominate its presidential candidate, and the military officials who hold a quarter of seats will put forward their nominee. The combined chambers will then vote; the winning nominee will become president, and the other two will become vice-presidents.
Suu Kyi has said that she will be “above the president”, and in complete control of the government, but no one seems to know how she will do this.
What she said at the time suggests that she does not intend to allow the constitution to stand in the way of her becoming president.
“He will have to understand perfectly well that he will have no authority, that he will act in accordance with the decisions of the party,” she said.
“That is the only logical way to do it. Because in any democratic country it’s the leader of the winning party that becomes the leader of the government.
“If this constitution doesn’t allow it, then we will have to make arrangements so that we can proceed along usual democratic lines.”