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Will politics sully Aung San Suu Kyi?

Originally appeared in Global Post

December 7, 2011

Burma’s democracy idol goes from iconic crusader to political dealmaker.

To US President Barack Obama, she’s a “a hero of mine.” To Burma’s military hardliners, she’s a “traitor” best confined to her decaying family mansion.

Now, US diplomats have a new name for Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma’s “powerful and principal interlocutor.”

After years of wilting under house arrest, the 66-year-old democracy icon is again ascendent, this time as a broker between the West and a new wave of army-backed leaders trumpeting reforms.

The daughter of Burma’s slain revolutionary founder, Aung San Suu Kyi has come to epitomize poise under persecution. She has suffered confinement, assassination attempts and the quashing of her 1990 election to the prime minister’s seat by a military junta.

Through non-violent resistance to government oppression, she is widely considered a successor to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. But neither man sought elected office.

Soon, Aung San Suu Kyi will.

In a by-election with a still-unannounced date, she and her recently-unbanned party will seek seats in parliament.

In confinement, she was exalted and considered virtually above criticism. In playing politics, she runs the risk of disappointing her faithful. Just how will Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation fare if she’s elected into a murky political arena?

“With all of us loving her so much, we worry,” said Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership, a pro-democracy network based on the Thai-Burma border. Like many other Burmese exiles, Khin Ohmar fled after a 1988 army crackdown against Aung San Suu Kyi and her democracy uprising.

Hearing her idol urge trust in an army-supported government, which rose to power last year in a rigged election, brings conflicting feelings, Khin Ohmar said.

Aung San Suu Kyi has told both her followers and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a recent visitor, that Burma’s new President Thein Sein is sincere.

“I believe in every horrible regime there are good people,” Khin Ohmar said. “There are many bureaucrats that carry on military rule but know it’s wrong. That’s how they survive.”

“[Aung San Suu Kyi] says the president is sincere, so world leaders won’t question it,” Khin Ohmar said. “Fine. But I will continue questioning whether he can deliver what he promised.”

What the president has promised is extraordinary: legalizing criticism of the government (for decades punishable by decades in prison) and opening up Burma’s long-shuttered economy.

Clinton ended her December visit by endorsing loans to Burma from the International Monetary Fund, and development assistance from the United Nations. The Burmese junta’s abuses have long justified Western sanctions and scared off foreign donors.

Fixing Burma’s shambolic economy will be no simple feat. But taming low-grade civil wars waged for six decades by various ethnic groups — which represent roughly 40 percent of the population — could prove much more difficult.

In his inaugural March speech, Burma’s president said armed ethnic militias had been devoted to “dogmatism, sectarian strife and racism instead of rebuilding the nation.”

But he also vowed to improve roads, hospitals and schools to mend separatist territories into a functioning nation. As it stands, most ethnic groups still defend their turf with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.

“Lip services and talks are not enough to achieve national unity,” said Thein Sein, according an official government translation.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, who liberated Burma from British colonialists, had signed an agreement to give full autonomy to the ethnic “frontier areas.” Though the 1947 plan was later abandoned, it has given his daughter credibility among ethnic separatists, even though she hails from the same “Burman” ethnicity that still dominates the country.

“We are the majority, the biggest group in Burma,” Aung San Suu Kyi said in a recent Skype interview with the Council for Foreign Relations. “But we’re just one of many.”

Not all, however, are convinced she can force the new government to honor its promise to Burma’s besieged ethnic nationalities.

“If she can secure this, then we’ll work with her,” said Nurul Islam, head of the Arakan Rohingya National Organization. “But we don’t see many changes coming in the future.”

His ethnic group — the 3.5 million member Muslim Rohingya of Burma’s western coast — are perhaps the most oppressed of all. Both the past and present regimes have insisted they are unworthy of citizenship. The junta’s top emissary in Hong Kong notoriously called them “ugly as ogres.”

“In Burma’s parliament, they openly reject our people. Democracy’s alright, but ethnic groups are the mega-issue,” Nurul Islam said. “We placing very high expectations on Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Aung San Suu Kyi has acknowledged that her foray into political gamesmanship could scuff up her reputation. As she reportedly told her party, the National League for Democracy, “some people are worried that taking part could harm my dignity. Frankly, if you do politics, you should not be thinking about your dignity.”

“It is a difficult transition from icon to politician,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, the International Crisis Group’s Southeast Asia Project Director. “Politicians have to compromise. It’s much more difficult to maintain popularity when you have to make difficult choices.”

“With the National League for Democracy in the legislature, or with Aung San Suu Kyi as a member of parliament,” Della-Giacoma said, “they’ll be associated with all legislation, whether it’s inspired, flawed or just mediocre.”

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