1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Price of politics

Rodion Ebbighausen / sb
November 9, 2012

Two years ago, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Since then, she has been working alongside her former opponents to reform Myanmar. The icon has become a politician.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 21: Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to the media following a meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at the U.N. on September 21, 2012 in New York City. The 67-year-old Nobel laureate has also met with U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton since arriving in the states. At a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Aung San Suu Kyi received the Congressional Gold Medal. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Aung San Suu Kyi UN New York ArchivbildImage: Getty Images

For the West and for Myanmar's, or Burma's, ethnic minorities, Aung San Suu Kyi was once seen as a symbol of hope. Now the human rights icon is getting criticism from all sides.

Representatives of the ethnic Kachin group wrote an open letter to her, saying: "It is discouraging that you are not speaking out against injustice that is done against people who have no voice." The 23 Kachin organizations which signed the letter were referring to the civil war which has been going on since June 2011 in Myanmar's northern Kachin state.

Humanitarian disaster in Rakhine

Suu Kyi is also being criticized for her not doing enough for the Rohingya. The Muslim minorities, which primarily live in the Rakhine state on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, have been refused Burmese citizenship for years. In the past few months, there has been an increase in unrest between the Buddhist majority and the Muslims in the state. At least 180 people have died in clashes and hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled their homes. Critics say Suu Kyi has not taken a clear stance on the humanitarian disaster.

Mohammad Nur, 28, faints while hiding with his wife Samuda Khatun and son Shahid Noor in a house in Teknaf October 30, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Biraj)
More and more Rohingya seek refuge in BangladeshImage: Reuters

The joint declaration Suu Kyi and representatives of ethnic minority groups presented in Parliament on Thursday, November 8, is not likely to be sufficient to pacify her critics. The paper is too general - it mentions neither the Kachin nor the Rohingya. Instead: "Everyone is responsible for respecting human rights, without discriminating between majority and minority, ethnicity and religion."

Torn NLD

Within her own party, opposition is also mounting. The online newspaper Financial Times Germany reported that 130 members of Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), quit the party on November 6.

South Asia expert Gerhard Will of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs said there was a direct correlation with their resignation and the party's "very authoritarian" leadership.

Three long-time NLD members from the state of Pathein openly denounced "undemocratic practices" within the party. The NLD is experiencing a divide between long-standing members and younger ones who have only recently joined. There is also a gap between the country's leadership and the far-reaching network of smaller regional factions.

The only person who would be able to arbitrate the division would be Suu Kyi. However, she "keeps out of internal disputes. She goes on international trips and speaks before parliament. She is not concerned enough with the structure of the party," Will told DW.

Members of the National League for Democracy party (NLD) gather in front of the party Headquarters, Yangon, Myanmar (Photo: EPA/NYEIN CHAN NAING +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk)
Aung San Suu Kyi was the symbol of hopeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

One factor which adds to the conflict within the NLD is the lack of experience in the party. Many of its leading members have spent decades in prison. It does not have enough politicians who are well-versed in the politics of the economy, infrastructure, and education - one reason it does not have much political leverage.

The price of politics

Suu Kyi's role was and remained - despite all criticism - a very important one, says South Asia expert Marco Bünte of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg. She was the one, he pointed out, who was able to build a bridge between the opposition and the government.

"I think Aung San Suu Kyi played a pivotal role in laying a foundation of trust between the two." And had there not been trust between Suu Kyi and Thein Sein, there would never have been change in the country nor would Myanmar have returned to the arms of the international community."

But Bünte said it had been clear her role would change as soon as she was voted into parliament. "Before, she was surely a hard-line opposition member. But today she is more of a pragmatist. Her politics used to have more symbolic value and they were aimed at the international community. Today, however, she was taking steps to introduce pragmatic reforms."

"That is the price of politics," said Will. "All people in politics have to compromise and make concessions."

Politician or icon?

As early as December 2011, Suu Kyi said during a visit with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that she would rather be seen as a politician than as an icon. Clinton responded by giving her the advice that she would do well to prepare herself for attacks.

Hillary Rodham Clinton Myanmar U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, and Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (Photo: AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)
Clinton met with Suu Kyi in Myanmar last yearImage: AP

The predicted attacks have now started. Suu Kyi, nonetheless, is keeping a firm grip on her role as an MP. When she was confronted with the topic of the Rohingya in an interview with the BBC at the beginning of August, Suu Kyi refused to make any concrete statements. Instead, she said both sides were displeased but that the rule of law should be established first before looking into other problems.

Will was skeptical that there would be any middle-term pay offs for her neutral and seemingly pragmatic stance. He said it was a matter of building up a powerbase. "Suu Kyi is only pragmatic in her dealings with the government. She has to make concessions in order to gain influence. It is a tactic that is supposed to cover up the fact that the NLD does not really have a strategy."

Suu Kyi has left her old role behind and led the NLD into Myanmar's parliament. But she is still far from growing into her new role.

Skip next section Explore more