Challenges for the Lady of Myanmar

Ratih Hardjono, Jakarta | Opinion

The pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi as the sole symbol of the Myanmar democratic movement showed itself last December when at a news conference she was reported to have said: “Please don’t forget that I started out as the leader of a political party. I cannot think of anything more political than that.” She also obliquely referred to her image in the West, saying that the “icon was a depiction that was imposed on me by other people”.

It has been a long and painful journey for Myanmar’s democratization, headed by Suu Kyi. For two decades The Lady, as she is often called, has been the center of the democratic movement in Myanmar.

The struggle has been very painful personally, resulting in her sacrificing her family life.

In April 2012, Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a historic by-election, and 43 members of the NLD joined the Myanmar parliament. The vote took place amid a series of political reforms initiated by the military-backed government.

Since then, Suu Kyi has begun to participate officially in public policy formulation. Although her voice is heard in small ways, it is no longer illegitimate. While this is obviously a huge victory for democratization in Myanmar, the next stage of the democratization battle will be just as hard and just as painful.

There are no guide books for this, despite the many titles detailing the issue of democratic transitions. What’s more, every country democratizes in its own way.

There is a certain image held among Western democratic countries about democratization in developing countries, which places very high expectations on leaders of these democratic movements.

Leaders such as Suu Kyi are crucial for democratization; they are the symbols that the people of Myanmar cling to and follow, just as former Indonesian president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid was a symbol for the democratic movement during the Soeharto years.

Once the Suu Kyis and Gus Durs become a legitimate part of the ruling elite, the voices in the West that gave oxygen to the democratic movements in developing countries cease to be important.

The different political stakeholders in the country take charge and are forced to deal with one another. The political discourse becomes local as negotiations take place to ensure that all political stakeholders have a seat at the table.

At this stage of democratization, the symbolism of these leaders proves insufficient, as the implementation of democratization becomes a practical matter, dealing with issues such as elections, strengthening political parties’ internal mechanisms, the widening of public participation in politics and so on.

This transition period is one of the most vulnerable points in the democratization time line. It is an intense, highly emotional and often treacherous period. The chaotic reorganization of political alliances, complex political and economic maneuverings and a new political discourse take place and become dominant.

In the practical negotiations between the old and new guards, these democratic leaders must be strong enough to hold their ground. At the same time, they must be skillful in negotiating with the old guard.

There will be demands on leaders by everyone in the country, including those who do not support the struggle. This is the time when the resilience of such leaders is tested.

Suu Kyi’s stand on the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar is a case in point.

She has been resisting calls to exert her moral authority on behalf of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that faces discrimination and has suffered attacks by extremist Buddhists in the country.

Voices of disappointment are emanating from Myanmar’s Muslims and other ethnic minorities, such as the largely Christian Kachin population. Democracy and democratic principles are for everyone —
including the military.

With the greatest respect to Suu Kyi and her years of struggle for the people of Myanmar, she needs to change gears from being just a symbol and a lone fighter to widening her support base through educating the young and those at the grassroots level on democracy.

She needs to start tilling the soil now so that democratization can take root and grow in order for it to be harvested by present and future generations.


The writer, a former journalist, is secretary-general of the Indonesian Community for Democracy (KID). She was a recipient of the Nieman Fellowship for journalism at Harvard University in the class of 1994.

The Jakarta Post