A historic moment for Aung San Suu Kyi: 5 things to know – Christian Science Monitor


Once possibly the world’s best-known political prisoner, today Aung San Suu Kyi made the historic move to lawmaker, after a swearing-in ceremony at Myanmar’s parliament in the capital of Naypyidaw. Here are five things about her.

Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?

Subject of a recent Hollywood biopic, the much-criticised The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of the last two decades under house arrest. Her crime? Winning a landslide victory in a 1990 election, held two years after she made her political debut in the country then known as Burma and a year after the the military rulers renamed the country Myanmar.

In 1988 Suu Kyi arrived back in Burma to tend to her ailing mother, but was soon drawn into the political ferment. Opponents of Burma’s military rulers sought a leader, after student-led pro-democracy protests were crushed by Burma’s army with around 3000 dead and thousands more arrested.  As the daughter of Burma’s post World War II independence hero, General Aung San, Suu Kyi was the obvious choice despite spending much of her life to date outside the country, married to a British academic and living in Oxford with two young sons. Her maiden political speech on August 26 1988 drew around a half-million people to an area around Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda.

Her career has been overshadowed by personal grief, however, and her marriage to Michael Aris ended tragically, as he was diagnosed with cancer in 1997 and died 2 years later. The country’s rulers denied him a visa to visit his wife despite the terminal diagnosis. She refused to leave Myanmar to visit him in the UK, as she feared the Myanmar junta would never let her return. The last time Suu Kyi saw her husband alive was in 1995.

Why has she never held office before?

Known affectionately to Burmese as ‘The Lady’, or ‘Daw Suu’ (Aunty Suu), Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday reversed her initial boycott of Myanmar’s parliament after a public outcry from supporters keen for her join parliament, 22 years after she won a general election but was denied office. The legislature requires an oath to the country’s constitution, a document Suu Kyi aims to amend.

She should have taken office long ago, as her party won a 1990 election in landslide, but the result was ignored by the army. Before that, her rise to prominence as the leader of then-Burma’s pro-democracy movement in 1988 was met with stern, often brutal opposition from the country’s military rulers.

Her marriage to British academic, anthropologist Michael Aris, was also used justification to keep her out, ruling that anyone married to a foreigner was barred from office.

What her swearing into parliament means

It means that probably the most famous Burmese person that has ever lived finally takes what most of her countrymen and women view as her rightful place – as a lawmaker in the country where she has been an icon for a quarter of a century.

But it is just a part-reversal of a historic wrong, as her party’s 1990 victory should have resulted in her becoming prime minister. Now she has 3 years as a lawmaker to build her party to compete in 2015 national elections, and, perhaps, if those are free and fair, subsequently become prime minister – though that too may require amending of the constitution.

The NLD won a landslide victory in the April 1 by-elections that brought Suu Kyi into office, and a repeat result in 2015 is possible, if the shell-shocked military and now-dominant proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party USDP), do not resort to cheating or annulling the result a la 1990.

Suu Kyi now faces the nitty-gritty of proposing and debating laws – on issues such as media reform, land, investment – and her performance will be scrutinised closely by international and local media, which now being slowly let off the government leash, though more reforms there are needed as well.

Suu Kyi appears to have formed a tentative alliance with President Thein Sein, after a watershed meeting between the pair last July. Since then Myanmar’s reforms have accelerated and Suu Kyi has added her voice and legitimacy to Thein Sein’s reform drive, which is said to be watched closely by ‘hardliners’ and old-school junta types in the military, who could move to oust Thein Sein. Suu Kyi’s backing is thought to be key to preventing this.

What reforms she’s championed?

A long-time advocate of Gandhi-style non-violence and believer in parliamentary democracy, her immediate aim is to revamp Myanmar’s constitution.

Adopted in 2008, the constitution gives overweening powers to the country’s military and overshadows the recently-begun reform process, which has seen the government come under nominal civilian control, with the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners and revamping of the country’s anachronistic and damaging currency exchange rate. Analysts saw that amending will be a huge ask, given that 25% of the parliament are army appointees and 75% is minimum vote needed to change the constitution.

Previously she advocated for Burma to become a multiparty democracy, underpinned by free and fair elections. She has called for the release of political prisoners, a free media and for ethical investment in Myanmar by foreign companies, now eyeing-up the resource-rich country after the European Union suspended sanctions for one year, in response to recent reforms. The U.S. has relaxed or removed some sanctions, but others remain in place, pending more changes by the Myanmar government.

Aung San Suu Kyi supported sanctions in the past as a means of pressuring the former junta into its eventual reform, and western governments appeared to take their cue largely from her, despite Asian countries such as China, Thailand and Singapore all investing in Myanmar during military rule. Now, with reforms taking place, Suu Kyi has dropped her opposition to sanctions and to her long-held view that tourists shun Myanmar as visiting the country meant putting money into government-run hotels and airlines.

Criticisms and critics

Her main critic has, of course, been the military junta in Myanmar. While she was under house arrest, for 15 years between 1989 and 2010, state-backed media snarled repeatedly that she was an agent for foreign powers such as the U.S. and U.K., citing her marriage to a Briton, her long years living overseas, her fluent English as well as her popularity in western media and political discourse. Suu Kyi is reputedly hated by former military dictator Than Shwe, the strongman who retired after the November 2010 elections.

She has been accused by some academics in the past of not giving sufficient detail about her policy goals -speaking in abstract or generic terms about rule of law and democracy, and of taking an allegedly-stubborn stance on issues of principle, such as on tourists visiting the country and, last week, on the oath issue. Her next-in-line leaders in the NLD are two decades older than Suu Kyi, now herself 66, and the party has sought to offset criticism that it does not promote younger members by succuessfully running thirty and forty-somethings in the recent by-election, including a well-known hip-hop stars and a prominent HIV-AIDS activist.

Myanmar’s ethnic minority leaders mostly support Suu Kyi, but in the past some have said she is not sufficiently motivated by or appraised of the conditions in Myanmar’s ethnic borderlands, where large minorities such as the Chin, Kachin, Karen and Shan have fought on-off rebellions for decades and where Myanmar’s army continues – despite reforms – to carry out war crimes, according to human rights experts. Around 60% of Myanmar’s population are ethnic Burman, as is Suu Kyi and most of the military elites, while the remainder is broken down into more than 100 ethnic groups.

However, understanding these criticisms, it is necessary to recalled that she was detained for most of decades for little more than winning an election, meaning that she had little opportunity to communicate with the outside world, to meet ordinary Burmese, or travel around the country to assess what specific policies might be needed.

Moreover, criticisms might need recalibration in the light of some of the ‘you could not make it up’ elements of her political career. In 2003, her house arrest was extended after pro-junta thugs killed dozens of her supporters in Depayin, attempting to assassinate Suu Kyi in the process. That extension was ‘for her own safety’, according to the junta, and in 2009, she was given an extra 18 months detention after a bizarre incident when an American named John Yettaw somehow made it across the heavily-guarded lake close to her home in Yangon, before being arrested by police upon his return. Suu Kyi was told she breached her house arrest terms by hosting a foreign guest.

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