Suu Kyi becomes key to complex Myanmar politics

By Didier Lauras (AFP)
23rd Jan 2012

YANGON — Aung San Suu Kyi is playing an increasingly important role in Myanmar, helping shore up a fragile alliance of former junta generals whose recent reforms have amazed observers, analysts say.

After half a century of total military domination, the Southeast Asian nation held widely-criticised elections in 2010 after ordering some of its members to shed their army uniforms to lead a “civilian” government.

Suu Kyi, released from house arrest days after that poll, has since taken a pivotal position, following talks with President Thein Sein last summer and her subsequent decision to run in an April 1 by-election.

The 66-year-old’s participation in the upcoming vote is one of a series of positive changes that have marked a break with the old junta approach to leadership and led to thawing relations with the West, which has imposed tough sanctions on the isolated nation.

Observers say power in the new regime balances between two key former generals turned eager reformers — the president and Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of parliament — with Suu Kyi becoming a third key player.

“The new generation (of military leaders) has come to terms with her and she has come to terms with the new generation,” said Aung Tun Thet, who works as an advisor for the UN in Yangon after many years abroad.

“For the first time now, I see an opportunity for change you get once in a lifetime.”

Shwe Mann, previously the junta number three, has on several occasions said Suu Kyi would be welcome in parliament.

The comments mark a dramatic political rebirth for a woman who was so hated by former strongman Than Shwe that she spent most of the last two decades locked up.

Than Shwe is officially described as retired, but many believe he is still relatively influential.

Observers stress that the current reform process is very fragile, with a small minority in the army outraged — or scared — by the changes.

While a cabal close to Myanmar’s top leaders pushes for more transformations, many are cautiously waiting to see whether the reformers will succeed.

The new system will soon need economic success and investment to win stronger popular backing — hence the regime’s desire for Western support and the lifting of sanctions.

And this gives massive leverage to Suu Kyi, whose iconic status both in the European Union and the United States has given her a very powerful influence on public opinion.

“I wouldn’t say we’re giving her a total veto but to the extent that she has confidence in the process, we will have confidence in the process of change in Myanmar,” US Senator Joe Lieberman told reporters in Bangkok recently.

In recent months, the opposition party leader has been an indispensable interlocutor during the visits of foreign dignitaries. And she is careful not to criticise the government.

“She transformed from an icon to a politician with all the risks and contradictions that entails,” said an observer who visits her regularly.

Shwe Mann’s son Toe Naing Mann, who is helping his father in his new role, believes that the common political goals uniting Suu Kyi and the two top regime reformers, all in their late 60s, are the key to the country’s future.

“The three of them can work now together for about five years. It is their first chance and also their only chance. If they cannot cash in this opportunity, they will be held responsible,” he told AFP.

Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) decided in May 2010 to boycott the general elections that year.

Her talks with Thein Sein have since convinced her to rejoin mainstream politics, to the point of rumours she will soon be in the government, speculation that she has not ruled out.

As the generals become heralds of parliamentary democracy, albeit with a legislature still dominated by the army, she is quickly learning a new role. “Suu Kyi is in uncharted waters,” said the observer.

But she is clearly determined to remain leader of the democracy movement.

This is acknowledged, despite some bitterness, by members of the National Democratic Force (NDF), which split from the NLD in 2010 to contest the November election, convinced that the boycott was a mistake.

NDF head Khin Maung Swe, who was in prison for around 20 years for his involvement in the NLD, does not understand why Suu Kyi has not been in contact since she decided to run in the April by-election.

He said he would have appreciated her admission that he was probably right, a year and a half ago.

“They have no guts to say to us: ‘Guys you were right, we were wrong at the time’,” he said. “She is too far away above our heads, she has no time to see us.”

But he admits she is “of course” the patron saint of the opposition.

“She is the only person who can have an influence all over the people.”

  1. #1 by Winston on Monday, 23 January 2012 - 5:40 pm

    Since moving to their new capital, Naypyidaw, the Myanmar
    government has changed completely.
    Or at least it appeared so.
    This metamorphosis has completely astounded all observers;
    not least those in the West.
    It was one of the most iron fisted dictatorship in the world.
    And to think that it can even begin to change is beyond all
    Perhaps, the generals who have been ruling the country all
    these decades have mellowed!
    Perhaps they have moved to the new capital so that they can
    have a new beginning.

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Monday, 23 January 2012 - 6:54 pm

    As far as human rights issues are concerned, Myanmar is making a change for the better but Malaysia is making a change for the worst – what a shame!

  3. #3 by monsterball on Tuesday, 24 January 2012 - 6:33 pm

    Rouges and thieves in Myanmar are fighting each other.
    Suu Kyi emerges as most powerful “Third Force” now…PM later.
    That’s how Myanmar get rid of corrupted dictators.
    Malaysians want change of Govt. too.
    We are luckier…the powerful Opposition to UMNO b have the vast majority People Power’s backings.
    Najib and his rouges and thieves are trying to upset the country…as the last resort to hold on to power.
    As long as smart Malaysians know this…the battle for change is simpler in Malaysia than Myanmar.

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