Politics take the shine off Suu Kyi
By Amantha Perera
YANGON - For over a quarter of a century, Uhla Min has lived under the spell of the Lady, the popular nickname for Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. His involvement with Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party dates back to the days when Suu Kyi launched a campaign in the late 1980s to rid Myanmar of military rule.
Min, now 75, has vivid memories of listening to Suu Kyi speak at the famed Shwedagon Pagoda in the then capital, Yangon, and of running from soldiers chasing down street protestors. He lost his government job because of his support for the NLD.
Min was jailed in July 1989 when Suu Kyi was placed under
house arrest. For the next 25 years, their lives took parallel paths. Suu Kyi would be confined to her house in Yangon under house arrest, and Min would be in and out of jail. He was tortured, like many other NLD activists.
"Jail was an endless horror, we were beaten until we fainted," said Min, now chairman of the organizing committee at the NLD headquarters in Yangon. Like many others in jail facing a bleak future, Min had one hope. "We all knew that the Lady was with us, she was like that small beacon of hope in that very dark place we found ourselves in."
The allure of Suu Kyi has not diminished for him, or for many others. Earlier this month, Zaw Linn Oo, program director for the Sopyay Myanmar Development Organization, a non-governmental group working on development issues, sat transfixed in the hotel lobby where Suu Kyi launched her new Suu Foundation.
He had not heard her speak in person for more than a decade. "I am so excited," Oo said after listening to the icon of democracy. Oo’s associations with the NLD were peripheral. He remembers the big meetings in 1988 and then again in 2008. "I was never a full-time activist," says Oo. But, he said, he knows that "she is the only one who has been true to us".
At the NLD office, U Thein, a young woman in her late 20s, shares the same sentiment. She became an NLD volunteer 10 years back, soon after she left school. Her family was against the move. "They felt it was dangerous, and it was. People were being arrested and put in jail just for speaking her name in public."
She said that Suu Kyi appealed to her because she was taking on a corrupt and violent leadership without resorting to violence herself. "Every time I saw her picture or heard her voice, I felt so much peace." She joined Suu Kyi’s then underground party and dropped earlier thoughts of seeking a government job.
This enduring image of the Lady as the champion of rights in the Gandhian mold, is now being challenged by the more practical image of Suu Kyi the politician.
Since she was released from house arrest in November 2011, and Myanmar opened up under the leadership of President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi has embarked on a campaign to wrest control from the Sein government, which is backed by the army. The challenge will be the next elections, due in 2015.
She has now had to plunge into the world of realpolitik.
"She is faced with a tough decision here," says a Western diplomat. "There is no one as charismatic as her who can lead the party, there is no one with her star power. But by getting into street politics, she has allowed her image as the unsullied democracy icon to be open to attack."
Suu Kyi has been criticized for not taking a tougher stance on raging racial violence in Myanmar, and some of her party supporters now say that years of isolation have made her uncompromising.
She also faces constitutional challenges that prevent her from assuming leadership of the country. Article 59 of the 2008 Constitution states that national leadership is not permitted to anyone whose spouse or children are citizens of another country. This effectively bars Suu Kyi from the presidency.
She has called for amendments to the constitution but has been ambiguous whether she would push for an all-out campaign ahead of the next elections.
"A politician thinks of the next election, a statesman thinks of the next generation," she said at the launch of her foundation. "We all have to remember that the 2015 election is just a stepping stone, and a long journey lies ahead of this country."
Reacting to criticism that she has been too quiet on racial violence, Suu Kyi said the answer to most problems facing Myanmar would be establishment of the rule of law.
Min has no doubt that Suu Kyi, if elected president, would inherit a monumental mess. "This is a divided country ruled by the military for over 50 years. She cannot make it right overnight."
The next few months will be pivotal to how future generations remember her, he says. "No matter what happens, for us she has always been and will always be pure."