Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi has lost many international awards since she fell from grace over the army’s persecution of the Rohingyas, a small, one million strong Muslim minority in the country's western province of the Rakhine.
But that does not bother the Burmese pro-democracy icon any more, as she focuses on one big prize that could come her way — President of Myanmar.
How Suu Kyi Became Myanmar’s De Facto Leader Despite Being Barred From Presidency
Though Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a sweeping majority in the 2015 national polls, she could not contest for presidency. Article 59 (f) of the Myanmar Constitution, enacted in 2008 by the military junta, debars Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting for the president's post, as her husband and children are foreign citizens.
Other provisions of the 2008 Constitution also gives the military 25 percent of the seats in Parliament and assures control of three key security-related ministries — Home, Defence, and Border Affairs.
Suu Kyi got around it in 2015 by creating the position of State Counsellor in Myanmar, that made her the country’s de facto leader. And that is what Suu Kyi is trying to change now, and become the country’s Supreme Leader.
Suu Kyi’s ‘Trade-Off’ With The Army
Having largely played ball with the military over the Rohingya crisis and other minority-related issues, Suu Kyi surprised the men in uniform earlier in the year by getting her NLD party to set up a Parliament Committee for constitutional reforms. The soldiers protested, but NLD insiders told this journalist that backroom parleys have made the generals realise the futility of opposing the move.
One top NLD source said that the parleys have convinced the generals that they need to strike a deal with ‘the Lady’ (as Suu Kyi is called by the army), because she is the only hope for them to avoid global sanctions.
Suu Kyi, they have been given to understand, may agree to the provisions that allow the military some representation in Parliament and control over some ministries – but only if the generals agree to drop the provision that debars her from contesting for presidency.
With nearly a year left for the parliamentary polls due in October-November 2020, there is enough time for constitutional amendments to be tabled and passed.
“Both NLD and the Army are trying to drive a tight bargain, but we hope to have a breakthrough, a compromise, asettlement,” said a top NLD source on condition of anonymity.
“Icons Sit On Walls. I’m A Flesh-And-Blood Burmese Politician”
“Icons sit on the walls; I am now a flesh-and-blood Burmese politician representing my people,” Suu Kyi said during a TV interview not so long ago. This response explains her transition from a global pro-democracy icon to a regular politician trying to survive the twists and turns of Burmese politics.
I recall her speech at Rangoon (now Yangon) at the peak of the 1988 Burmese protest movement against the military junta, when she had come home to attend to her ailing mother but got dragged into the movement .
“I could not as my father's daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on,” Suu Kyi had said in a speech in Rangoon on 26 August 1988, and was “propelled into leading the revolt against the then-dictator, General Ne Win,” she had told a massive crowd challenging the military rule.
“Suu Kyi had grown up and lived in India and the West all her youth and married life, so democracy was big for her, but since 1988, she has lived and suffered in Myanmar . Now she is a Myanmar politician and she wants to survive and lead the country,” said a woman NLD MP, who has seen Suu Kyi's transition over the years.
Suu Kyi’s Striking Resemblance To Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina
There is a striking resemblance between Suu Kyi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Both Hasina and Suu Kyi are daughters of leaders seen as the founding fathers of their republics. Both lost their fathers to bullets of assassins. Both were icons of the pro-democracy movements in their respective countries and fought military rulers. And both are struggling with the challenges of the contemporary political realities of their countries.
But while Hasina brought down the military ruler Ershad and then co-opted him as an ally in her decade in power, Suu Kyi is still struggling with a military that controls far too much.
So, as she ends her first term in power, Suu Kyi is quietly trying to control her army, even risking global criticism for letting them off for the persecution of the Rohingyas.
In August 2018, Suu Kyi described the generals in her cabinet as “rather sweet”. This, after she was stripped of a dozen Western awards including one by Amnesty International, and amidst rising demands to take back her Nobel Peace prize.
“She was Nelson Mandela, now she wants to be Sheikh Hasina,” said regional analyst Sabyasachi Basu Roychoudhury .
(The writer is a veteran BBC journalist and an author. He can be reached @SubirBhowmik. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quintneither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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