Aung San Suu Kyi’s life has been marked by the politics of her homeland, Myanmar. The daughter of a national independence leader, this formidable character grew up to lead her country’s fight against military dictatorship, found a party, win a Nobel Peace Prize and spend more than a decade confined to her house as a political prisoner. When, as a child, I had one of my first ever feminist strops about the lack of female politicians in the UK, my dad selected her as a good example of a woman who broke the mould. Now, after 25 of unchanging military dictatorship presiding over civil strife, Aung San’s National League for Democracy seems to have achieved a popular mandate for change. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with countries which have witnessed so much injustice, it won’t be as simple as the seasoned activist would have liked.
First and foremost, the party’s leader is constitutionally forbidden from serving as president. In a move clearly designed to exclude her, the previous regime decreed that no one married to a foreign national can act as head of state, meaning that Aung San will have to create her own strategies for exerting the power Myanmar’s electorate seem to have given her. Although she has asserted that she will be “above the president” in the new order, one suspects that the immediate future holds a far more complex balancing act.
Aung San will have to create her own strategies for exerting power
Aside from the constitutional oddities, the NLD will have to adjust to their roles as democratically elected representatives while working alongside members of the regime they have opposed for so long. A quarter of parliamentary seats are still reserved for government-appointed figures of the armed forces. While important representatives of the status quo have been saying that they will support the new government, only time will tell how far they will allow the NLD to pass pro-democratic reforms or deal with other of the country’s ongoing issues. We must remember that they weren’t above placing Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest the last time she won a majority in 1990.
As well as the difficulties of struggling for power with the military, Aung San also faces external pressures. Once an almost unquestioned symbol of freedom and democracy, in recent years she has come under fire for her unclear stance on Myanmar’s minority groups, particularly the Muslim Rohingya. Unable to become citizens, these people will not have voted for the NLD, but will nonetheless look to its governance to protect them from religious discrimination and violence.
Growing Islamophobia among the Myanmar’s Buddhist majority has meant that few politicians will defend Muslims for fear of losing popularity. The NLD insists that it will “abide by [its] commitment to human rights and democratic values”, but in a country facing so many problems, including poor infrastructure and social services, there is no guarantee that religio-ethnic disputes will be the government’s priority. Myanmar’s population has grown used to arbitrary and inconsistently applied laws, and incitement to violence against Muslims by Buddhist leaders has gone unchecked. While dreadful, the Rohingyas’ situation represents the tip of an iceberg of interracial tension in the country; tension which will be difficult to quell even over many years. When analysing the successes and failures of the incoming government, we must therefore be realistic. It is unlikely that a nation so marked by dictatorship and civil war will make anything but gradual progress.
the Rohingyas’ situation represents the tip of an iceberg of interracial tension
The NLD’s legendary leader is in her seventies as she moves towards public office for the first time in a life of activism. ‘Lady’ Suu Kyi is an almost queen-like figure who will undoubtedly do her best to make up for lost time and promote democracy as a national as well as a party leader. We can only try and imagine her thoughts and feelings at this moment in her life, a moment of world history. However, it could be dangerous for hopes for Myanmar’s future to rest on her shoulders alone – the democratic principles she promotes can enable her countrymen and women to move forward. Whether or not the other factors at play in the country will allow that is a question for the history books.