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A dramatic reconstellation of opinions occurred last week. On the same day that Burma’s President Thein Sein, a top-ranking general in the former junta, arrived in New Zealand to a 21-gun salute, Aung San Suu Kyi faced down hundreds of Burmese angry at what they claim is her role in whitewashing a crackdown on protestors at a copper mine in November that left dozens with phosphorous burns.
For all the heady developments in Burma over the past two years, the contrast of these two moments is perhaps the starkest signal of a shift in the country’s political arena: Aung San Suu Kyi, the revered Nobel Laureate and global icon, heckled for the first time while her one-time jailer toured Europe and Australasia to applause for his reformist programme.
While her entry to parliament after 15 years under house arrest has been celebrated worldwide, many Burmese are struggling to reconcile the discrepancy between her activist past and more establishment present. It is the first time she has been tested as a pragmatist, and the terrain is unfamiliar for her. “Sometimes politicians have to do things that people dislike,” she told crowds at the copper mine site last week.
The many Burmese who have lost their farmland and homes to the mine’s expansion over the past decade were candid with their feelings: “You said you wouldn’t trick the people,” said one, referring to an investigation into the crackdown chaired by Suu Kyi that put the use of phosphorous down to the naivety of riot police, and declared the mine should continue despite acknowledging that it would bring only “slight” benefits to the country.
The report is seen as bowing to powerful military investors and China, which has bankrolled the mine; it also suggests that impunity for security forces will continue. Its conclusions have deflated expectations of the political opposition, and painfully so for many who submitted to fealty to Suu Kyi during the dark decades of military rule.“In reality, we knew nothing of her as a politician”
But the reactions to the report may also reflect a certain naivety in assessments of Suu Kyi’s political prowess – did Burmese think that her capacity to weather physical and psychological attacks from the military inevitably equipped her with the tools to lead the country out of its clutches? In reality, we knew nothing of her as a politician, only that she was a figurehead who stood for everything the junta wasn’t.
Are the protests then the result of an exquisitely executed plan by the government, or its predecessors, to erode the credibility of their longtime nemesis? Suu Kyi chose to enter politics because, in her words, “dissidents can’t be dissidents forever”, and the military made clear that unless she compromised, she would be cast into oblivion.
Now the government has been able to shrewdly exploit her popularity for its own gain. On a number of key issues she finds herself in a position that threatens to damage her national and global standing: speak out on the persecution of the Rohingya minority, and risk losing votes from a potentially vast anti-Rohingya voter base; criticise the army for its attacks on ethnic Kachin, and risk the wrath of the hardline generals; or cancel the country’s most lucrative mine, and further anger China and powerful Burmese military investors.
In all three she aligned herself with the government, and in the eyes of many, the military. But the decision to place her at the helm of the probe into the November crackdown, knowing she was unlikely to side with the protestors, more than anything emphasizes her ulterior value to the government: despite the president being chiefly responsible for the violence from security forces, the criticism is directed at her – Thein Sein is feted, Suu Kyi is harangued.
Her position furthermore casts doubt on the solidity of ethnic fraternalism in Burmese politics. The majority Burman refer to her as Mother, that incandescent light that kept the people alive and breathing during years of suffocating rule. Will this reverence withstand her own enforced compromises?
“Mother Suu doesn’t exist anymore”, one woman yelled at her. “All the love we have for you, now it’s nothing,” another said, echoing complaints of betrayal that until now had only been voiced by the Kachin and Rohingya.
With talk of a revision of the constitution, which currently bans Suu Kyi from taking office, the chances of her becoming president in 2015 rise. Yet the competition will be aggressive; Thein Sein doesn’t want the role beyond 2015, and the powerful speaker of the lower house, Shwe Mann, who has close ties to the military but is modeling himself as a pragmatic reformist in government, will likely make a bid to take the top position in two years. It could be that Suu Kyi will be forced into ever more contentious positions in a bid to weaken her standing among Burmese before 2015.
It is a testament to the immense stature she holds that what should be an ancillary issue to the discussion of the crackdown has now come to dominate it – the fight for justice and the quest to end the culture of impunity for security forces are a side story to the big and frightening question of what Suu Kyi now stands for.
This should also remind us however that Burmese politics is still in a stage of immaturity that lends itself to risky demagogy – as one analyst put it, the realisation that Suu Kyi is taking a realpolitik approach to her new role is all part of Burma’s “democratic growing pains”, and for this perhaps we should be more patient in our criticism of its figureheads.
The transitional stage is often a painful one, where heroes turn out to be humans and the trials of daily politics are less straightforward than dictatorial rule. This incident then could become something of a second political awakening for Burma, a realisation that all that glitters is not gold, and ultimately a healthy experience for the voter base.