Making the most of a legacy
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was given a heroine’s welcome at Natmauk in Magwe Region on February 13 for celebrations marking the birth in the town 100 years earlier of her father, General Aung San.
There are many reasons why the founding father of post-colonial Burma is still revered and remembered. Aung San was a young man when he founded the Burma National Army, predecessor of the Tatmadaw. After World War II he slowly but surely wrestled independence for his country from the British. The year before independence he hosted a meeting at Panglong with Shan, Kachin and Chin leaders that agreed a formula for a federal state.
Aung San never witnessed the unshackling of his country from colonial rule. On July 17, 1947, gunmen entered a room at the Secretariat Building in Yangon and assassinated the bright young politician and six members of his cabinet on the Executive Council, the shadow government established by the British to prepare for the transfer of power.
Some older Myanmar believe that Aung San was the only politician who could have unified the country and prevented the civil war that erupted the year after independence and tore the country apart, setting the stage for a military coup.
There was a time when many people thought that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could live up to her father’s dream. But can she?
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had returned to Myanmar to care for her terminally ill mother when she entered politics during the violent summer of 1988. She had no background in politics and had lived abroad for most of her life, but the Aung San aura guaranteed her political stardom before she had done anything.
The powerful image of a petite, photogenic woman standing up to the generals and her articulate, eloquent use of English ensured that she became a focus of attention for foreign journalists visiting Myanmar. Publicity tends lead to more publicity; with every article the stature of the Lady grew. All her party had to do in 1990 was turn up.
Since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi decided to play along with the transition in 2012 and contest by-elections in which her National League for Democracy won 43 of 45 vacant seats, the situation has changed. Lofty speeches are not enough anymore. The NLD and its figurehead have to deliver, inside and outside parliament.
Disillusion is setting in. In Western countries opposition parties tend to offer policy alternatives. They launch proposals and form shadow governments. The NLD seems content, though, to focus on opening offices and to neglect political content. Its only real effort was to unleash a national campaign for constitutional reform that focussed partly on charter provisions barring its leader from contesting the presidency.
Every foreign dignitary visiting Myanmar cherishes the opportunity to meet the NLD leader and have a picture taken with her. But after these meetings adulation is often replaced by disappointment.
It is worrying that she lacks of circle of critical advisors and that her party does not appear to be grooming a younger generation of talented political thinkers. There’s also the fact that after many years the NLD is yet to develop a carefully crafted political platform. How would an NLD government manage the economy, foreign relations and healthcare reform? We can only guess.
We do know that the NLD is striving not to alienate its predominantly Bamar constituency on the contentious issue of Muslims and citizenship, a development that is making its Western supporters increasingly uneasy.
It was no coincedence that when the Lady spoke in Natmauk, she was flanked by senior monks. Was this to demonstrate that she has the backing of nationalist Bamar, is not a friend of Muslims and supports the controversial religious laws? An earlier NLD move in parliament to disenfranchise white card holders in the proposed May referendum spoke volumes as well.
Last week the government upped the ante by announcing that all white cards will expire at the end of March, a move that will leave about 1.5 million residents in legal limbo.
Granted, this is an election year. Nevertheless, it is not a pretty sight when the former army men of the Union Solidarity and Development Party and members of the National League for Democracy are trying to outdo each other in embracing anti-Muslim policies. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize should not want to be part of this.