LONDON – It was the most closely-watched Congressional race of 2000, and the most expensive in the history of the United States. When the dust settled, Hillary Rodham Clinton raised her right hand and took her seat in the United States Senate. As perhaps the most prominent First Lady in American history, and the first elected to Congress, observers excitedly wondered how she would approach an institution ruled by seniority and typically dismissive of new members.
Hillary herself had questions, so even before she was sworn-in, she approached one of the Senate’s longest-serving members, Senator Robert Byrd. The advice from the dean of the U.S. Senate to the new Senator from New York was short and to-the-point: “Be a workhorse, not a show horse.”
And so, Senator Hillary Clinton-with universal name recognition and a national, even international, support base-kept her head down, worked determinedly to build relationships with former archrivals, and became one of the most popular and effective legislators in the Senate. She made the choice, consciously and conscientiously, to be a senator, not a symbol.
I thought of Hillary’s choice this past weekend, observing the 17-day European tour of Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime symbol of Myanmar’s struggle for democracy and now a minority Member of Parliament in the rapidly-reforming Southeast Asian nation, which is what the British renamed Burma.
It was moving, of course, to hear Suu Kyi’s eloquent words as she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to her in absentia in 1991. “The Lady,” as she is known in Myanmar, endured 15 long years of on-and-off house arrest after winning and being denied the presidency by the military junta in 1990. She was not released until November of 2010, as Myanmar’s new President, Thein Sein, began systematically and surprisingly instituting political and economic reforms-not because of Suu Kyi or pressure from the West, but to counter-balance the growing influence of China in Myanmar.
The trouble begins, however, when her “victory lap” fuels perceptions of what The Guardian termed “Burma’s tale of two presidents.” Or, as a Myanmar analyst tells me, “Thein Sein is not a strong leader, and Suu Kyi thinks she is not president, but queen.”
In Ireland, Suu Kyi was treated to a rock star welcome-literally-with U2’s Bono proclaiming himself “star-struck” at a concert in her honor. After meeting with both British Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince Charles, Suu Kyi addressed the British Parliament-an honor most recently accorded to President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict. And speaking to the International Labor Organization in Switzerland, Suu Kyi reminded her audience, “I do not stand here a representative of the workers, or of employers, or of government,” [charmingly but] somewhat blithely adding, “Not yet, anyway.”
But now, as President Thein Sein has announced a “second wave of reforms” aimed at spurring economic investment in Myanmar, Suu Kyi’s reemergence onto the world stage threatens to confuse Myanmar’s policy and undermine the liberalizing regime.
Her recent warning to foreign oil companies not to do business with the opaque, state-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, for instance, has displeased the deeply unpredictable regime. Her recent appearance at the World Economic Forum in Bangkok-where she “stole the show” as the Irrawaddy reported-also forced Thein Sein’s sudden withdrawal, in what was to be his coming-out party in East Asia, for fear of being upstaged. Her remarks to WEF delegates-warning against “reckless optimism” on Myanmar’s reforms-reportedly angered former junta members in Naypyidaw.
“The reform process remains heavily dependent on two individuals-Suu Kyi and Thein Sein,” writes Maplecroft senior Asia analyst Giulia Zino. It “has the potential to implode at any time.” The Lady herself echoed this sentiment in her Nobel talk, ironically observing that “one unconsidered move can be enough to remove long-standing ceasefires.”
While the successful return on reforms seems to have led the former military hierarchy to shelve its “Plan B”-no doubt a renewed crackdown and abandonment of the moderate progress made, as Derek Tonkin, Chairman of Network Myanmar, describes it-any perception that Suu Kyi is usurping the authority of the former generals will only encourage them to crush Myanmar’s steps toward democracy.
The University of London’s Marie Lall puts it best: “The trip, and the cheers and the accolades she will receive, are well-deserved for the many years of sacrifice and isolation. However, this is not a culmination of a political career, but rather the start of one.”
As Suu Kyi returns to Myanmar in time for the start of the July 4 session of Parliament, there are any number of urgent issues MP Suu Kyi can engage in.
While in Europe, she has already fielded questions on the delicate issue of citizenship for the Rohingyas refugees, a group of 800,000 Muslims on Myanmar’s western border with Bangladesh, where Buddhist-Muslim violence recently killed 29 and displaced 30,000 more. Given her status as a champion for the oppressed, Suu Kyi can play a unique role as Myanmar searches for a solution.
Likewise, the ongoing warfare between the army and Myanmar’s ethnic minority-a state of affairs that has persisted since Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, was assassinated before he was able to implement an agreement to peacefully integrate them into the state-threatens the country’s stability. Suu Kyi has the authority and opportunity-working through legitimate government channels-to help establish a roadmap for integration. In a country where ethnic minorities have long suffered at the hands of the ethnic Burman majority, her insistence on calling the nation “Burma”-as she did again in her Nobel lecture, despite minority revulsion to the name-doesn’t help.
Finally, though the recent normalization of relations and suspension of some sanctions recently enticed Coca-Cola back to Myanmar after a 60-year absence, other Western companies have been wary of investing. If Suu Kyi joins with the President to promote responsible foreign investment and development, it would go a long way toward aiding the 55 million citizens of Myanmar in poverty while encouraging the regime to liberalize further.
In addressing these challenges and others, Suu Kyi’s voice-always eloquent-will be essential. But it will be magnified most if she uses it not to speak in platitudes for her entire country, but to lay out her principles to the regime, and then collaborate with them to make those beliefs a reality.
Last year, when Hillary Clinton, now Secretary of State, became the first top U.S. diplomat to visit Myanmar in 55 years, she spent several hours meeting with Suu Kyi. The two women quickly established a close, personal relationship and were “visibly moved” when they embraced following their meeting.
For Suu Kyi, the best way to move her country forward will be to follow her friend Hillary’s example in the legislature, subordinate her celebrity for the good of the country’s progress and become a workhorse, not a show horse.