Challenges Ahead for Burma’s Suu Kyi


by Nehginpao Kipgen

As a political scientist and someone who closely follows Burmese political developments, I had little doubt about the certainty of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi on Nov. 13, upon the expiration of the term of her house arrest.

Given the nature of the military junta, it was not surprising for many to be cautiously optimistic or even pessimistic about the release until she actually emerged from her house to greet thousands of supporters.

It was the Nov. 7 general election that really concerned the military generals. The junta wanted to ensure that Suu Kyi was ostracized before the military power could be consolidated under a new form of government. The election was a carefully crafted political game.

Although the election result is yet to be officially announced, an overwhelming victory is expected for the military–backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In fact, unofficial reports have indicated a landslide win for the USDP.

Looking at the last general election from 1990 in which the now-defunct National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly, the military is unlikely to accept a smaller win than that gained by the NLD. Some of these seats will come from the 25 percent of the seats that are reserved for the military, as guaranteed by the constitution.

Since Suu Kyi is a source of inspiration for many and an icon to many more millions of democracy advocates around the world, her freedom is a moment of joy and celebration. However, it is still too early to tell what the future holds.

What lies ahead for Suu Kyi is a great challenge. There are high expectations of her from the Burmese people and the international community alike. Like any other political leader around the world, she has both internal and external issues to deal with.

One political drama expected to unfold during the next few days and weeks is a challenge to the dissolution of her party—NLD. There may also be questioning of the legitimacy of the Nov. 7 election. In both cases, the military leaders are unlikely to rescind their verdicts.

With her fame and popularity, she will attract a large crowd wherever she travels. Regardless of whether or not there are conditions to her release, the military agents will be keeping a close eye on her activities. She still remains a big threat to the military-led government.

The advantage Suu Kyi has over other politicians, including the military leadership, is the overwhelming support she receives from the country’s ethnic minorities, which constitute roughly 40 percent of the population.

The ethnic minorities see the conflicts in Burma as a two-stage issue: democracy and autonomy. They see the present conflict as a consequence of the unfulfilled promises of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, when the conferees agreed upon autonomy for the then Frontier Areas (ethnic minorities).

Moreover, the ethnic minorities see Suu Kyi as a leader not only for the majority ethnic Burmans. The minorities expect Suu Kyi to remember what her late father General Aung San once famously said, “If Burma receives one kyat, you will also get one kyat.”

Aung San’s statement reminds one of the fact that the Union of Burma was formed by different ethnic nationalities with the assurance that all will be treated equally under a democratic constitution.

Finding a peaceful solution to ethnic minorities’ problems will be a tremendous task for Suu Kyi. But if successful, it will be the most rewarding political achievement in the modern history of the Union of Burma.

If the international community wants to see a peaceful democratic Burma, it must extend every necessary support to Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, ethnic minority leaders, and elements within the military-led government to resolve Burma’s longstanding problems.

Under the present political structure, the military is unambiguously the most vibrant and cohesive institution. Therefore, the cooperation of the military is critically essential for Burma’s political stability.

These tentative suggestions will only be possible if some sort of cooperation can be established among the three important actors: the state (military), the Suu Kyi-led opposition group, and ethnic minorities.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is an opportunity for Burma to move forward. The approximately 55 million Burmese people deserve nothing less than a democratic society where all ethnic nationalities can peacefully coexist.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum. His articles have been widely published on five continents—Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America. He currently pursues a doctorate in political science at Northern Illinois University. He can be reached at [email protected]


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