Issue #26, Fall 2012

The One They Were Looking For

The first serious biography of Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at perhaps the most serious point of her public life.

Thein Sein welcomed Suu Kyi’s participation in public life even before the by-elections, and allies of the democracy leader said that, in private, she had come to trust Thein Sein and believe that he was at heart a true reformer. In fact, she has so fully embraced him that some in the democracy movement worry that she has gone too far in legitimizing the new government. Others in the government remain wary of the democracy icon. At the same time as she built a close relationship with Thein Sein, she is still an opposition parliament member, and her actions anger the government, and apparently the president, as well: While Thein Sein and his advisors have eagerly stumped for foreign investment as Western countries have lifted sanctions over the past year, she warns foreign investors about coming to Myanmar. In a speech to the World Economic Forum, she cautioned them about moving into Myanmar too quickly and bringing in investment that did not help the public—a valid point, but one that angered Thein Sein.

Why did Myanmar’s junta allow these reforms when it seemed to be unthreatened? Why does it now appear to be seeking a much closer relationship with the United States? (The United States currently has suspended but not completely lifted sanctions, unlike some other Western nations. Washington has also sent a new ambassador and boosted aid.) Several Burmese officials and analysts have suggested that the generals realized that by working with Suu Kyi now and overseeing a managed transition in which many of their allies like Thein Sein held the reins they could keep the vast wealth they had amassed illegally. She seems to be reciprocating their trust. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in November last year, she downplayed the idea of severe punishment for the military rulers’ past abuses and called for forgiveness of past crimes, including those perpetrated against her personally.

Popham notes that with such moves, Suu Kyi actually has proven an astute and pragmatic politician, and suggests that in her 60s, with some significant health problems, she may realize that this is her last chance for real change in her country. (Without her, it is certainly hard to imagine average Burmese just forgetting the past and moving on.) Even within her own party, she has shown pragmatism by welcoming into it former military leaders turned democrats; now, too, she must conciliate younger NLD members who want to move more quickly with reforms and may not realize how much power the army still has.

This pragmatism will serve her well now: Despite its by-elections victory and enormous popularity among average Burmese, the NLD still holds a tiny minority of seats in parliament, and it has no guns at all. And, as some longtime Burma watchers like journalist Bertil Lintner have noted, the NLD missed an opportunity, back in 1990, to use its massive electoral victory to force the army to make compromises and to launch a transition. This time, Suu Kyi may take a different tack. The ethnic minority groups that have agreed to cease-fires with Thein Sein generally respect her, but she is still a member of the ethnic majority Burman group (like most military leaders) and so remains distrusted by some who worry that she too will ignore their demands for greater autonomy. And though Than Shwe and other senior military men may remain happy in retirement so long as any future government does not prosecute them or come after their assets, what about middle-ranking officers who never had the chance to enrich themselves and now face the prospect of saluting to a civilian government led by former political prisoners?

Compared to withstanding 15 years in house arrest virtually alone, watching her husband die in another country while she remained in detention, being separated from her sons, and seeing her allies tortured and murdered, today’s compromises might seem easy. But with those other hardships, Suu Kyi herself was little to blame—the decisions were being made for her, and her courage was in standing up to them. Now, her courage will have to be revealed in the deals and compromises she makes—the type of legacy that does not lead to Nobel Peace Prizes, but might well leave Myanmar a real future.


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Issue #26, Fall 2012
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The Powell's link should be (it currently goes to

Sep 12, 2012, 5:11 PM
Elbert Ventura:

Thanks for flagging that. Fixed.

Sep 12, 2012, 11:30 PM
Bhaskar Menon:

Does the book omit any mention of how Aung San died or is that omission the reviewer's contribution?

Sep 13, 2012, 3:22 AM
patricia pidgeon:

Aung San Suu Kyi will be in Los Angeles this October to speak to the Burmese community. I am interested to learn more about her plans to restore Burma's position in Asia and the global economy.

Sep 15, 2012, 9:36 PM

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