22 Jan The Lady’s date with destiny

Written by Nicholas Farrelly Published in Commentary Read 6748 times
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech during a central committee meeting of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in Yangon, Myanmar, 13 December 2014. Photo: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech during a central committee meeting of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in Yangon, Myanmar, 13 December 2014. Photo: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi must have greeted the New Year with some anticipation, and trepidation: 2015 is when her hopes to lead Myanmar will be put to the test. All the battles, campaigns and strategies have been leading towards a chance to get in the ring for a proper electoral showdown.

While she publicly equivocates about whether her team will run, it would be a bold and potentially disastrous move to surrender another election to the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party.

A big issue is just how free and fair the 2015 election will prove to be. There is the obstacle of the 2008 Constitution with its clauses that look like precluding Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from taking high office, and the various other advantages it gives to the military and its civilian supporters.

The rules of the game have been written to help guarantee that no matter how well democratic parties perform they will only hold some fraction of the levers of power.

Others will be kept in the hands of the Commander-in-Chief, the National Defence and Security Council, the judiciary, and the countless members of the military and bureaucracy who will seek to preserve some slice of the status quo.

Winning enough seats in Bamar heartland areas, from Sagaing to Tanintharyi, is likely to be Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s only chance of working up a majority in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. And even then she will probably be forced to share power with strong ethnic political parties, and also with the military, and even the USDP.

This means that while 2015 may be Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s date with destiny it makes sense to temper hopes of a democratic stampede. It is only with the help of a range of political forces, including militarists and conservatives of various persuasions, that Myanmar is going to leave behind its dictatorial funk.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi appears to have made this calculation. She has disowned earlier enthusiasm for squeezing her opponents and now seems to have in mind an incremental approach to seizing power.

For that to happen her personal charisma can still be mobilised to great effect. There is no bigger crowd puller. The NLD member delegations that attend sessions of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw are a case in point. They all queue for photos with their hero. Suffice to say heavies from the USDP tend not to be such a drawcard in the selfie stakes.

Yet this popularity points to what may prove to be Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s greatest limitation in 2015 and beyond. She has yet to appoint a successor and her party remains dominated by a generation of leaders blooded in the battles of the 1980s, or before. As Myanmar looks towards 2020, and the prospect of a newly entrenched and resilient electoral system, her old guard will need to be replaced.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is often criticised for her inability to adjust to new challenges. To her credit, since she was released from house arrest in late 2010 she has made great strides as a political player. Her speeches are on topic and her campaign tactics are better than ever.

But she needs the people of Myanmar to put their faith in her. That is also why she has been so reluctant to court controversy. Human rights activists can judge her harshly for her inability to advocate on behalf of the Rohingya or Kachin.

Yet, sadly, there are no votes to be won in taking a bold stand on these issues, and millions may be lost. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – after all her sacrifices and those of her party – cannot afford to let that happen.

(Dr Nicholas Farrelly is a partner at Glenloch Advisory, a political and risk consultancy focused on the Asian region. He is also a Fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific)


This Article first appeared in the January 15, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.

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Last modified on Monday, 26 January 2015 11:43