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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 22 New Delhi May 21, 2016

Would Aung San Suu Kyi succeed in freeing Burma from Army’s Dominance?

Monday 23 May 2016


by Monaem Sarker

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Laureate, spent more than 15 years in detention, most of it under house arrest. She was released from her current third period of detention on Saturday, November 13, 2010. Aung San Suu Kyi was born on June 19, 1945 in Rangoon, Myanmar, a country traditionally known as Burma. Her father, formerly the de facto Prime Minister of British Burma, was assassinated in 1947.

Suu kyi’s father Aung San, born on February 13, 1915, was a Myanmar revolutionary, nationalist, founder of the Tatmadaw, and is considered as the Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar who served as fifth Premier of the British Crown Colony of Burma from 1946 to 1947. He was the founder of the Communist Party of Burma. On July 19, 1947, a gang of armed paramilitaries of former Prime Minister U Saw broke into the Secretariat Building in downtown Rangoon during a meeting of the Executive Council (the shadow government established by the British in preparation for the transfer of power) and assassinated Aung San and six of his Cabinet Ministers, including his elder brother Ba Win, father of Sein Win, leader of the government-in-exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB). A Cabinet Secretary and a bodyguard were also killed. U Saw was subsequently tried and hanged.

Aung San was responsible for bringing Burma’s independence from British rule in Burma, but he was assassinated six months before independence. He is recognised as the leading architect of independence, and the founder of the Union of Burma. Affectionately known as “Bogyoke” (Major General), Aung San is still widely admired by the Burmese people, and his name is still invoked in Burmese politics to this day.

Her mother, Khin Kyi, was appointed the Ambassador to India in 1960. Suu Kyi obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oxford in 1969, and in 1972, she married Michael Aris, a scholar in Bhutanese studies. She had two children—in 1973 and 1977—and the family spent the 1970s and 1980s in England, the United States and India.

Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988, after years of living and studying abroad, only to find widespread slaughter of protesters rallying against the brutal rule of dictator U Ne Win. She spoke out against him and initiated a non-violent movement towards achieving democracy and human rights. In 1989, the government placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, and she spent 15 of the next 21 years in custody. In 1991, her ongoing efforts won her the Nobel Prize for Peace, and she was finally released from house arrest in November 2010. She has since gained a parliamentary seat with the National League for Democracy party.

On July 3, 2009, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon went to Burma to pressure the junta into releasing Suu Kyi and to institute democratic reform. However, on departing from Burma, Ban Ki-moon said he was “disappointed” with the visit after junta leader Than Shwe refused permission for him to visit Suu Kyi, citing her ongoing trial. Ban said he was “deeply disappointed that they have missed a very important opportunity”.

On the evening of November 13, 2010, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. This was the date her detention had been set to expire according to a court ruling in August 2009 and came six days after a widely criticised general election. She appeared in front of a crowd of her supporters, who rushed to her house in Rangoon when nearby barricades were removed by the security forces. Suu Kyi had been detained for 15 of the past 21 years. The government newspaper New Light of Myanmar reported the release positively, saying she had been granted a pardon after serving her sentence “in good conduct”. The New York Times suggested that the military government may have released Suu Kyi because it felt it was in a confident position to control her supporters after the election. The role that Suu Kyi will play in the future of democracy in Burma remains a subject of much debate.

On January 5, 2012, British Foreign Minister William Hague met Aung San Suu Kyi and his Burmese counterpart. This represented a significant visit for Suu Kyi and Burma. Suu Kyi studied in the UK and maintains many ties there, whilst Britain is Burma’s largest bilateral donor. During Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Europe, she visited the Swiss parliament, collected her 1991 Nobel Prize in Oslo and her honorary degree from Oxford University.

In December 2011, there was speculation that Suu Kyi would run in the 2012 national by-elections to fill vacant seats. On January 18, 2012, Suu Kyi formally registered to contest a Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house) seat in the Kawhmu Township constituency in special parliamentary elections to be held on April 1, 2012. The seat was previously held by Soe Tint, who vacated it after being appointed Construction Deputy Minister, in the 2010 election. She ran against Union Solidarity and Development Party candidate Soe Min, a retired Army physician and native of Twante Township.

Although she and other MP-elects were expected to take office on April 23 when the Hluttaws resume session, National League for Democracy MP-elects, including Suu Kyi, said they might not take their oaths because of its wording; in its present form, parliamentarians must vow to “safe-guard” the Constitution. In an address on Radio Free Asia, she said: “We don’t mean we will not attend the parliament, we mean we will attend only after taking the oath... Changing that wording in the oath is also in conformity with the Constitution. I don’t expect there will be any difficulty in doing it.” On May 2, 2012, National League for Democracy MP-elects, including Aung San Suu Kyi, took their oaths and took office, though the wording of the oath was not changed. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Suu Kyi and her colleagues decided they could do more by joining as lawmakers than maintaining their boycott on principle.” On July 9, 2012, she attended the Parliament for the first time as a lawmaker.

The NLD won a sweeping victory in those elections, winning at least 255 seats in the House of Representatives and 135 seats in the House of Nationalities. In addition, Suu Kyi won re-election to the House of Representatives. Under the 2008 Constitution, the NLD needed to win at least a two-thirds majority in both houses to ensure that its candidate would become President. Before the elections, Suu Kyi announced that even though she is constitutionally barred from the presidency, she would hold real power in any NLD-led government.

Some activists criticised Aung San Suu Kyi for her silence on the 2012 Rakhine State riots (later repeated during the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis). After receiving a Peace Prize, she told reporters she did not know if the Rohingyas could be regarded as Burmese citizens. Under the 1982 Citizenship Law, most Rohingyas are unable to qualify for Burmese citizenship. As such, they are treated as illegal immigrants, with restrictions on their movement and withholding of land rights, education and public service. Some describe her stance as politically motivated; however, she said that she wanted to work towards reconciliation and that she cannot take sides as “violence has been committed by both sides”. According to The Economist, her “halo has even slipped among foreign human-rights lobbyists, disappointed at her failure to make a clear stand on behalf of the Rohingya minority”. However, she has spoken out “against a ban on Rohingya families near the Bangladeshi border having more than two children”.

In a 2015 BBC News article, reporter Jonah Fisher suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence over the Rohingya issue is due to a need to obtain support from the majority Bamar ethnicity as she is in “the middle of a general election campaign”; however, her NLD party has no Muslim candidates for the election and actively discouraged them. Adding to the international criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence, in May 2015, the 14th Dalai Lama called on her to do more to help the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi is negotiating the terms of transition with the military, according to a Reuters report, quoting a local newspaper. The move means Hlaing has consolidated his position in the country’s military, and that there will not be any senior-level reshuffle in the Army.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is backed by the military, was defeated by Suu Kyi’s party in November, beginning a transition that was to end on April 1 with the new government in saddle. The win allowed the NLD to push forward its nominee for the presidency, but the party will still have to negotiate with the Army as they continue to have 25 per cent reserved seats in parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi had met the former President thrice. Only the future can say whether Suu Kyi would succeed in freeing Burma from the Army’s dominance.

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