Viewpoint: Suu Kyi's changing role
- 14 June 2012
- From the section Asia
Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's new roles as roving envoy for her country and as an MP bring both opportunities and limitations, argues Asia expert Marie Lall.
Ms Suu Kyi left Europe in 1988. This is her first trip back because many of the intervening 24 years were spent under house arrest.
During this time she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize and she became an icon, seen by many as a living saint akin to Nelson Mandela.
Burmese politics was to many outsiders a simple case of black and white: The Generals v The Lady.
Today the political landscape in Burma has changed quite dramatically. It is no longer black and white, but has many shades of grey.
After the 2010 election (in which the National League for Democracy or NLD, Ms Suu Kyi's party, did not take part), a process of reform was engendered by President Thein Sein.
Ms Suu Kyi, either trusting the president or realising that being outside of the parliament would lead to the NLD's slow demise, decided to join the political process and stood at a by-election in April this year.
The NLD won 43 out of the 44 seats they contested, showing the great support she still commands even after so many years away from public life. Ms Suu Kyi is now an elected MP to Burma's lower house and, as such, a legal representative of the people.
Although leading an "opposition" party, she is now also seen by the government as being a part of "the system" that was created to bring a structured democracy to Burma - not quite the same as how democracy is understood in the West.
Both her joining the political process, as well as her international trip to Europe, would have been unimaginable even a year ago. In effect, such radical change was only possible because President Thein Sein and Ms Suu Kyi agreed to compromise and work together for the good of the country.
Her second international trip will allow her to interact directly, both with the politicians who supported her campaign for political change in Burma, as well as meeting many of the Burmese who left during the troubled 1980s.
This will bring accolades as well as responsibilities. Those who meet her will want her to take on the new government and the reform process. Her assessment will bear great responsibility, as it might impact aid and investment.
Until recently, Ms Suu Kyi supported the international sanctions regime that was imposed for over two decades by mainly Western countries.
Whilst these sanctions might have been politically righteous, they mostly harmed the ordinary people, as the generals continued to derive their revenues from exports to China and Asean.
Now, as a de facto ambassador for her country, she is expected to take a more nuanced position and do what is best for the economic development of Burma. Her cautioning international investors in Thailand last month was not seen by the government as a positive step forward, creating new tensions.
Opposition no more?
The main challenge for her will be to maintain the fragile relationship with President Thein Sein, who is the catalyst behind the country's reform process.
It is not so much her being feted and adored publicly in the West that would jeopardise this - but what she makes of her personal support for the country.
She has a unique opportunity to help "normalise" the strained relationships between the West and Burma.
From the government's point of view, "opposing" the establishment should be limited to her work inside the parliament - not on the international stage.
Once back from her trip, there are other challenges awaiting her. The priority for the next sitting of parliament starting on 4 July will have to be a consolidated effort by all parties to work towards improving the economy.
Issues such as debating the changing of the constitution and the role of the military might be Ms Suu Kyi's priority, but will be seen as divisive and counterproductive.
She will have to deliver promises for her bitterly poor constituency located in the delta, as well as build bridges with the other ethnic opposition parties.
In addition, she will have to start a reform process within her own party to make it more democratic and allow for greater youth participation as her octogenarian colleagues start to retire.
This trip, and the cheers and the accolades she will receive, are well deserved for the many years of sacrifice and isolation. However, this is not a culmination of a political career, but rather the start of one.
Once back from the West, she will have to face the challenges at home and continue on the path of dialogue and negotiation in order to take the country forward. These next steps will certainly not be easy.
Marie Lall is Reader in Education Policy and South Asian Studies, Institute of Education, University of London