An Insider at Last, Burma’s Suu Kyi Encounters New Political Woes

In Europe, Aung San Suu Kyi—the persecuted activist turned elected official—has found that Burma’s domestic problems have followed her abroad.

Kyodo / Landov

On the eve of her first visit to Europe in more than two decades, Aung San Suu Kyi—no longer a persecuted activist but an elected leader in Burma’s Parliament —is getting a first taste of what it means to be on the other side of the barricades. The experience may well be an uncomfortable one. Her first foray abroad, earlier this month, brought a rare downpour of brickbats. And this time around, as Suu Kyi departs, the far western region of her country is in flames amid inter-ethnic fighting.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Indeed, Suu Kyi’s Europe schedule has all the elements of a victory parade. On Saturday in Oslo, Norway, she will make the speech she was unable to deliver in 1990 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia. In London, she will also address a rare joint session of Parliament, and will be the star turn at a concert in Dublin, where her long-time supporter, Bono, the lead singer of U2, will present her with Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award. (Although she has a tuneful voice, she is not expected to sing.) In England on Tuesday, she will celebrate her 67th birthday at a party with her two sons and other family members.

Suu Kyi lived in Britain for more than 20 years and became caught up in the democracy movement after returning to Burma in 1988 to look after her sick mother. The daughter of Aung San, the man regarded as the founder of independent Burma, she quickly became the movement’s charismatic leader. She spent more than 15 years under house arrest, and during interludes of freedom she declined to leave the country, fearing that her passport would be revoked and she would be barred from re-entering.

Suu Kyi’s return to Europe is thus a moment of triumphant vindication after so many years of solitude and endurance. Thanks to her alliance with President Thein Sein, a former general who surprised the world by turning out to be a determined reformer, she and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), are now playing an active part in the nation’s political life, effectively for the first time.

But Suu Kyi is discovering that her new role brings a range of new problems. As a dry run for her trip to Europe, the Thailand visit was added to her program at the last minute. She quickly learned that the sort of willful spontaneity in which she has often indulged inside Burma can provoke serious difficulties abroad.

The short hop to Thailand, which included visits to a refugee camp, where thousands of Burmese of Karen ethnicity have lived for decades—victims of an unending civil war with the Burmese army—made sense as a way of reminding the world that, however much she may be idolized in the West, her heart and her identity are Asian. The Burmese regime has often used her long residence in England, and her marriage to a British scholar, the late Michael Aris, to argue that she was a mere tool of foreign powers.

But the trip was arranged without informing the Thai government in advance. And when it was announced that she would speak at a conference of the World Economic Forum in Bangkok, it put her key ally, President Thein Sein, on the spot. He himself had already accepted an invitation to speak at the meeting. It must quickly have dawned on his aides that to play second fiddle to a woman who less than two years ago was a prisoner of the Burmese state wouldn’t do his image any good. He suddenly discovered vital things to do back home, and cancelled the trip.

Suu Kyi’s first trip abroad thus brought her first diplomatic black marks—and a warning that life on the inside track can have its own complications. Burma’s official daily paper, The New Light of Myanmar, warned that the “hard-won trust” between her and the President might “vanish”.

The trip was also criticized as chaotic and poorly organized, which would come as no surprise to foreign journalists who have struggled, sometimes for many months, to obtain a response of any sort to interview or other requests. The administration of the NLD is dominated by the so-called “uncles,” ageing party hacks who have been in place for many years and some of whom refuse to learn to use e-mail. The system was inadequate when she was merely Burma’s most famous dissident; it is glaringly so now.

Suu Kyi also badly lacks advisers with the seniority and experience to give her wise counsel. Very few of her senior colleagues have ever been outside the country.

If these problems were not enough, her imminent departure —her first stop was in Geneva, Switzerland, where on Wednesday she addressed a conference of the International Labour Organisation on the problems of migrant workers— has been overshadowed by a vicious outbreak of inter-ethnic fighting in the far west of the country. The Rohingyas, a persecuted Muslim minority in a country that is overwhelmingly Buddhist, have been involved in a spate of tit-for-tat killings with their Buddhist neighbors. The conflict has left at least a dozen dead and thousands homeless, prompting President Thein Sein to declare a state of emergency in Arakan state.

Again, Suu Kyi finds herself in a quandary: if she speaks up for the Rohingyas—who are not officially recognized as an ethnic minority, even though many have lived in the country for generations—she risks antagonizing her fellow Burmese Buddhists. If she stays mum, she invites criticism for complicity with state oppression.