YANGON–Of all the great films about American politics, one that has stood the test of time is a 1972 classic about the triumph of symbolism over substance called The Candidate. Starring Robert Redford, it tells the story of an inexperienced son of a beloved political leader who is pulled into politics on the strength of his family name. Turning the general election into a popularity contest, Redford’s character encourages the media to play up the father/son angle, delivers a series of pleasant but empty speeches, and ultimately wins election to the United States Senate. In the film’s iconic closing scene, as screaming fans chase him on the way to his victory speech, the Senator-elect dodges the crowd, pulls his political consultant into a room and asks blankly, ” What do we donow?”
Here in the nascent democracy of Myanmar, it is hard not to think of that film when considering the latest chapter in the political career of Aung San Suu Kyi. The daughter of this nation’s slain founding father, Suu Kyi was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her opposition to Myanmar’s military junta, which kept her under house arrest for 15 of 21 years after winning and then being denied the presidency in 1990. Gaining a seat in parliament in 2012, in just the second election since this nation re-opened itself to the world; Suu Kyi has been heralded by many as Myanmar’s great hope, described as the “one politician who could play the role (here) that Nelson Mandela played in South Africa.”
That is not how the script has played out so far. Instead, like Redford in The Candidate, Suu Kyi’s pursuit of the political spotlight has been relentless — but her use of that spotlight to advocate for something other than herself has been absent. The result, a long-time Suu Kyi supporter tells me, is that “many of the people who love her have been disheartened by her.” A former aide agrees, adding that “people once thought she was super-human, but many have changed their minds.” For the first time, the global media is beginning to tell the same story — suggesting recently that Suu Kyi is a “tarnished saint;” that her “halo” has been “dented;” that her reputation as “The Iron Orchid … seems to have wilted;” that her leadership has fallen “short of expectations;” and even that her revered father, the assassinated General Aung San, “would be horrified” by the positions taken by his daughter.
But there is one influential audience that still sees Aung San Sui Kyi as largely infallible: Western leaders. British Prime Minister David Cameron has called himself one of her “greatest admirers.” Europe, as a well-known European ambassador tells me, “looks at the country on a daily basis and only sees The Lady,” as Suu Kyi is known here, adding, “If The Lady calls (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and says ‘go left’ or ‘go right,’ she will.” Above all, the new Republican leadership in the United States Congress is “completely in love with her,” says a leading Western official. The head of that fan club is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who not only counts himself as The Lady’s foremost advocate in Washington, but has a framed letter from her on his office wall and a wife who is rumored to be personal friends with Suu Kyi.
It has locals here asking a pointed question: if the upcoming general election, due in November, doesn’t end with Suu Kyi as President, will the West see the election as legitimate — or will it be the trigger for new sanctions to be imposed on the people of Myanmar? Put another way: if Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), follows through on the threat it made this month to boycott the election if the military-drafted Constitution doesn’t change, will that invalidate all of the progress this nation has made the past four years in the eyes of the West?
Drafted by junta leaders in 2008 in a process that deliberately excluded the NLD, and approved in a national referendum riddled with voting irregularities, Myanmar’s constitution forbids anybody with a foreign spouse or children from becoming President. Since The Lady’s late husband was British, as are their two sons, there is little doubt that the provision was drafted exclusively to prevent Suu Kyi from becoming president.
David Cameron has promised to lobby military leaders to have the provision overturned. U.S. President Barack Obama, in a visit here last November, said the law “doesn’t make much sense.” Yet Shwe Mann, the formidable speaker of Myanmar’s parliament, has repeatedly asserted that such a change would require a national referendum and insists it would be impractical to hold such a referendum until May of 2016. And since it takes a 75 percent plus one vote of Parliament to call for such a referendum – at a time when unelected soldiers, by law, hold 25 percent of parliamentary seats – the odds are long.
It has left Suu Kyi with an inescapable paradox: if she doesn’t personally and publicly lobby for the constitution to change before the election, then nobody else will, since “people are not ready to go to the barricades for her,” as a respected Burmese venture capitalist said to me. But if she repeatedly lobbies (as she has) for the constitution to change merely to allow her to run for president, she risks looking like she only cares about herself – which is exactly what’s happening. As a long-time ambassador from the Middle East puts it, her continual petitioning has led many to think, “She is self-centered and likes to lecture. She likes to play the role of being a symbol.”
Of course, it might be a different story if Suu Kyi better balanced her constant attacks on the political authorities for a change that would benefit her with a much more rigorous use of her Nobel-enhanced moral authority for change that would benefit others. But as all those negative headlines indicate, that has not happened. Summing up the essential problem, journalist Jane Perlez observed of the criticism last November that Suu Kyi “has hesitated to take on many of her country’s biggest issues … and has failed those who expected a staunch human right advocate.”
Since joining parliament, Suu Kyi has rarely spoken out against the government’s ongoing violence against rebels in northern Kachin State — part of a festering, 70-year war between Myanmar’s military and its 135 ethnic minority groups. Her complete silence on atrocities being committed against more than one million Rohingya Muslims – who are being herded into squalid camps by the Buddhist majority in western Rakhine state — has drawn outrage from human rights advocates. Yet, when Human Rights Watch came to Myanmar in January, she said she was too busy to meet with them. Last month, she even threatened legal action against an NLD member for supporting student protests against a controversial proposal to decentralize the education system, leading one publication to ask if she “turned her back on Burma’s student protesters.”
In one high-profile case where protesters were attacked by police for protesting a copper mine, Suu Kyi sided with elites and company officials. She has yet to raise her voice on a constitutional issue that will likely dominate discussion in 2016, which is the movement toward a federalist system of government that solidifies a cease-fire agreement signed this month between the government and 16 armed ethnic groups and grants minorities some degree of autonomy — without which Myanmar will never be a real country.
The disappointment felt by many former supporters was summed up by lawmaker U Thein Nyunt, who told a journalist last year, “We’ve followed her leadership for two decades, but she’s failed to get any results for her country. It is obvious now that she is not considering the people, but only her own power.”
Like The Candidate, The Lady still uses the image of her father as often as possible. But maybe, deep in her heart, she believes that she’ll never be in a position to make real change until she’s President. Maybe being hailed as her nation’s savior is more pressure than she, or many of us, could live up to. Or maybe the substance of Aung San Suu Kyi never really matched the symbol — and the West would do well to see that Myanmar is much more than The Lady.