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Suu Kyi in the New Yorker

by Joshua Kurlantzick
January 28, 2011

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses crowd during a ceremony to mark 63rd Independence Day at NLD head office in Yangon

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses the crowd during a ceremony to mark the country's 63rd Independence Day at the National League for Democracy (NLD) head office in Yangon January 4, 2011. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

In last week’s New Yorker, foreign correspondent Joshua Hammer had a profile of Aung San Suu Kyi, asking whether, after being released from house arrest, she could hold together an opposition movement in Burma battered for years by the ruling junta and now, in some ways, splintered following the recent national elections. Hammer further suggests that Suu Kyi has missed opportunities for compromise that might, in some small ways, have put Burmese politics onto a more open and progressive track. 

Hammer, whom I’ve known for years as an excellent reporter and edited when I was at the New Republic, raises some interesting questions. They were echoed in cables by American officials, leaked by Wikileaks, in which the U.S. officials question the long-term viability of the Burmese opposition movement, which they call “sclerotic” and dominated by older figures who are not giving way to the young.  “Already frustrated with the sclerotic leadership of the elderly NLD ‘Uncles,’ the party lost even more credibility within the pro-democracy movement when its leaders refused to support the demonstrators last September [2007], and even publicly criticized them,” wrote one US official.

Some of these complaints seem a bit unfair. The contention, by historian Than Myint-U, quoted in Hammer’s piece, that Suu Kyi is basically irrelevant today and does not worry the junta, is just not true; the junta still clearly is concerned, and the true test of their worry will come if Suu Kyi travels the country again.

Other points, too, seem unfair. Burma’s opposition movement exists in one of the most repressive environments in the world, so to criticize its leaders for being weakened today and, at times, uncompromising, hardly seems fair – it doesn’t exactly operate from a position of strength. Suu Kyi herself has been locked up for years; it’s the regime that has been largely uncompromising, and has tried to kill her and her colleagues on numerous occasions, so stomaching any compromise with the junta must be quite hard. The fact that many leaders of the NLD are old is not, in itself, their fault: They hail from the last generation of Burmese intellectuals to experience real democracy, in the 1950s and early 1960s, and bring a unique perspective to Burmese politics. And even Suu Kyi herself would admit she is not a saint, though sometimes the global Burma movement has made her out to be as a means of encouraging their followers and supporters.

Still, Hammer raises some important points and hits home on several of them. Though it’s uncomfortable to say it, at times powerful opposition movements, in order to survive repression, have to become somewhat controlled themselves. The African National Congress, during the apartheid era, was not exactly known for welcoming dissenting views; neither, for example, was the anti-Kuomintang movement in Taiwan that ultimately developed into the DPP of Chen Shui-bian. In some ways, for the Burmese opposition movement to survive, the NLD has had to ensure that it not become too fragmented and diverse, and that one or two main goals are pursued – it is not always an opportunity for wide-ranging debate or freewheeling politics, which would be possible in a more open political system.

And, like so many political movements organized around one charismatic and brave individual, the Burmese movement, like the Tibetan exiles, have relied so much on Suu Kyi’s local and global appeal that it sometimes can be hard for other figures to break through into the public consciousness. Suu Kyi’s appeal, like the Dalai Lama’s, often leaves the Burmese movement wondering what might happen were she to pass from the scene, but with no ready answer – and no real dialogue about the future.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Maung Ko Gyi

    Economic development is key to Human Rights in Burma / Myanmar. Currently garment workers receive around $10 per week, and even were they to have a passport the visa application fees exclude them from applying for a visa to a western nation; it is also a waste of money as most likely their visa application is going to be denied. There are not only trade sanctions, the western nations keep the people in complete isolation through economics.

    You have to consider that when you earn $10 a week; a simple infection that can be easily treated with antibiotics becomes a huge expense. People struggle to feed themselves on a daily basis.

    Of course being so poor means the poor Burmese people cannot afford a refrigerator so food spoils quickly; daily food shopping becomes a necessity.

    Of course many young people are keen for a better life and travel to Malaysia and Thailand where they are used and abused as cheap labor. The reality is Burmese people are actually treat far better in Burma than they are in the neighboring countries; it is the economics that drive them abroad.

    The Nationalization program of the 1960’s saw many Burmese people loose their businesses and the token compensations have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many. The current government might want to consider a sweeter that could help align the taste buds of many.

    The straight path to Human Rights in Myanmar is not through fancy pharmaceutical medications or grandiose vaccination programs. Basic sanitation is what is needed. Every household has right to clean drinking water and proper plumbed sewage. Ko Ko loves To To is the graffiti on the toilet wall. Basic epidemiology is often brushed aside by large corporations; Bill Gates please take note.

    Of course investment by major economic entities can do most for the people of Myanmar. A Subaru assembly plant can set the standard for working conditions that can be embodied by Microsoft, Google, Apple and Dell. Tourists want drivers with current model Outbacks rather than dangerous old cars where when you look at the floor you see holes in the road.

    The country also has the most stunning western coastline offer sunset after sunset. Hilton, Sheraton, Four Season and Marriott could bring much needed employment again setting the standards for working conditions and accommodation.

    Aung San Suu Kyi could set a minimum wage of $50 per week and 4 weeks paid holiday a year as a precondition on all foreign investment. Additionally these workers need access to 25 yr mortgages so they can then buy a quality 5 star condimiuium.

  • Posted by Tony Gillotte

    Maung Ko Gyi has it about right, while Kurlantzik is off on his think tank fantasies. The real changes needed in Myanmar is fresh, potable water for villagers and city folks. Sewer systems that work for the majority of the people. Roads that allow farmers to more easily bring their crops to market, and widespread medicine so that the daily ills of the people can be taken care of rapidly and left to fester. And we can start by lifting sanctions so that foreign investment can continue and Burmese workers can earn some money to support their families. I have visited several industrial parks where foreign investment was thriving and workers were not driven to slavery conditions. In fact, they were let go to go home at 4 pm and the next shift was arriving to start their stint. However, pay conditions must be improved as Gyi notes.

  • Posted by Naing Ko Ko

    Hi Maung Ko Gy,

    You should be better to ask your questions to the military generals who have multibillions dollars in their pockets.

    Look at to the data and figure of Burma’ economy, the military thugs have been spending (government’s expenditure in macroeconomic term) billions of dollars in digging tunnels and building a new capital, nyi-pyi-daw where has a potentially zero economic growth for next decades.

    Look at the “Pocketization and cronyism of Burmese modal” (NOT privatization which encourages a free and fair market-competition) to “the junta’s men”, e.g Khin Shwe who daughter is married to Gen. Shwe Mann who is the speaker of house now and ex-no.3 in the brutal Burma Army.

    Why don’t you tell the military generals to stop spending 40% of the country GDP on the defense and military affairs and to increase 10 % of GDP on Education and Health Sector? Burma has billions of dollars from natural resources, esp, gas, timber and gem, forestry, where has such billion gone? Do they go to either health and education sector or military thug’s pocket?

    Be a pragmatic realist dude!, Burma is not broke dude and we should not be like a bagger to bag money from the rich countries. We have our own both human capital and natural resources, what Burma needs is that a smart economic & social policy and smart politicians who can make a double digit economic growth that the military thugs can’t do it within 50 yrs.

    Look at Vietnam which has economic sanction, but they can work with their ex-enemy: American.

    Don’t blame others; look at carefully into the Burma’s economic and political situation.

    Have a nice day dude,
    Best wishes,

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