Why Burma still needs Aung San Suu Kyi

Down University Avenue, a narrow road in an affluent district of north Rangoon, a procession of cars and trucks bumps, at rush hour, trying to avoid the city’s desperate congestion. It sometimes includes taxis bearing tourists who come to look at the house where Aung San Suu Kyi lives. All they can see is a big steel gate. Disappointed, they take a quick photo, then dodge back into the traffic jam. When she was first locked up here in 1989, this would have been almost a country lane, and the secluded villas like this on the edge of Inle lake would have been quiet and peaceful places, far from the bustle of central Rangoon, which in those days, to tell the truth, was also not that bustling.

When she emerged – first in 1995, and then in 2010 after further periods of house arrest – that choked back road could serve as a metaphor for what happened to Burma during her confinements. A huge economic development was under way, and now its pace is increasing.

Tourism leaps on from resort to fresh resort. New infrastructure, a lot of it built by the Chinese, is completed almost every month. Rangoon, under attack from developers of many nationalities, gets more hectic by the day. Burma is becoming more prosperous, more “modern”. But all this is happening in the absence of a true political settlement.

And the calm, cool-headed, elegant and hugely popular figure of Aung San Suu Kyi stands at the centre of the vortex that is Burma’s politics. By November, she will either be in a position to become the president, or, in spite of that popularity, she will have been bypassed by the soldiers and ex-soldiers who still hold most of the political cards. Assuming a major victory in the parliamentary elections for her party, the National League for Democracy, she could still be a powerful player. But if she is not given the opportunity to stand for the presidency, which is an indirectly elected position, the democratic new start the regime has promised will be deeply flawed.

When I spoke to her last week, she emphasised how critical for Burma’s future it is both to change the retrograde document that is the country’s current constitution, and to hold serious talks about the transition to democracy. Otherwise, she indicated in a careful, nuanced but unmistakable way, she and her party would be forced to reconsider their position. If there were no amendments, she said, the party “had several plans in mind”. It would be foolish of her to reveal the details, she said. “I’m sure we can’t provide those who don’t want our plans to succeed with the opportunity to undermine them.” Asked if there were circumstances in which her party would boycott the elections, she replied: “I don’t entirely rule it out, no. I think if you’re a sensible politician you don’t entirely rule out anything.”

Daw Suu, or The Lady, as she is known in Burma, speaks with occasional touches of sly wit and endearing scraps of old British slang (she “trots out” policies, for instance), but there is no mistaking the seriousness of her arguments. She wants a change to the provision in the constitution that prevents any citizen who has a foreign spouse or children (or whose children have foreign spouses) from standing for the presidency – a provision plainly drafted to exclude her – although, she says, “I have to confess that I feel a bit embarrassed talking about it because it seems a little bit too personal.” But people “want the right to choose a president that they want and they don’t want a constitution that stops them from doing so”. The provision that gives the military “a virtual veto over constitutional amendments” must also go, she says. “So these two will have to be changed if we are to have a truly fair election. At the moment, the playing ground is not level.” In addition to the constitutional changes, she wants the president, Thein Sein, to take up proposals for high-level talks on the transition to democracy that have been on the table for two years.

“What I would really like to know is why the president is so reluctant to have such talks,” she says, adding in a studiedly innocent way, “I would appreciate it so much if you could get an answer from him.” Daw Suu always chooses her words judiciously, seeking to preserve options and to avoid unnecessary offence or confrontation. But what she said in the interview is, by her careful standards, a serious warning to the military men who hold power in Burma.

Her task is a truly difficult one. She must persuade a powerful military establishment, which has engrossed most political and economic power in the half century it has ruled, to let go. She has to make the generals understand they can’t stay in a halfway house between military and civilian rule forever, and that they can’t stick with a jerry-built constitution that looks vaguely democratic but ensures they always have the last word. And she has to convince them that all this is ultimately in their interest as a class.

She, on the other hand, has to face the fact that the military and their allies cannot, as a matter of practical politics, be whisked out of existence by legal changes. And she has to bear in mind that they embarked on reform to preserve that position, not to discard it. It is a very tall order.

Burma’s constitution is centre stage in this process. In halls across the country late last year, for instance, in sessions arranged by a team from the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, ordinary Burmese have been studying their constitution and finding it remiss in many ways. Last year, 5 million people signed a petition calling for amendments. This is a constitution which, in addition to barring her from the presidency, entrenches the military’s veto over any laws, policies, or administrative procedures they do not like – and the power to push through any that they do.

The situation is somewhere between farce and parody. The most visible sign of this is the arrival each day, when parliament is in session in its lavish, marble-decked halls in the new capital of Naypyidaw, of scores of officers, natty in their freshly pressed olive drab. They are military members of parliament who, as laid down by the constitution, must have 25% of the seats. When they vote, they vote as a bloc.

Almost on their own, the military could block any amendment to the constitution that requires 75% plus one of the votes in the two houses. Since there is also a significant government party, the Union Solidarity and Development party, the two together can prevent any developments the military does not want.

The outside world, Daw Suu clearly feels, has been giving the Burmese military the benefit of the doubt for far too long. “I would just like to remind you that I have been saying since 2012 that a bit of healthy scepticism would be very, very good, and that too many of our western friends are too optimistic about the democratisation process here.” The chiding note is hard to miss, and so typical of her style, the way in which she expects others to keep to the high standards she herself observes.

Daw Suu has her critics, and not only among ex-generals. The answer to them is surely that nobody else in Burma has the combination of integrity, historical sense, and wisdom she possesses. It would be a perverse nation which wasted that asset.

Aung San Suu Kyi was interviewed by Martin Woollacott and Prof Sir Jeffrey Jowell of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. Both have recently been in Burma. The interview was conducted by telephone from London.

Martin Woollacott is a former foreign correspondent, foreign editor and commentator on international affairs for the Guardian.

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