Burma’s Half-Made Revolution

Aung San Suu Kyi implied on Monday that the West is being fooled by the pace of Burmese change.

Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

Aung San Suu Kyi was an author before she became a politician, and on Monday, on what many would describe as the crowning moment of her amazing career to date, she produced a powerful image of the peril Burma might now face, just as hopes of democratic transformation are approaching a crescendo. “The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” she told journalists, standing alongside President Obama in the garden of her villa. “We have to be very careful that we are not lured by the mirage of success.”

Was this a quiet rebuke to the president? A way of hinting that perhaps Obama had been fooled by the pace of Burmese change? We know that she was less than enthusiastic when the idea of his visit was first mooted. But the fact that her doubts were ignored or over-ruled is confirmation of what we first saw signs of six months ago, with the rolling back of U.S. sanctions on the country: Suu Kyi and Obama are no longer on exactly the same page.

Their body language in Rangoon gave every evidence of affection as well as respect; at one point they looked a little like Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the well-known Gone With the Wind poster. The contrast with the photos of President Obama with Burma’s president, Thein Sein, the latter extending his hand like a soiled dishrag, could not have been starker. But now the world knows what Aung San Suu Kyi has known for many months: her interests—the interests of the Burmese masses—and the interests of their most powerful ally no longer coincide.

For the Americans, this quick-in, quick-out Burma spur to the president’s South-East Asia trip had so much in its favor. Coming right after his election triumph, it drove home the sagacity of his decision to engage with Burma way back in 2008 when there seemed little or nothing to be gained from it. Coming before his arrival at the East Asia summit in Phnom Penh, it helped to remind his Cambodian host, Hun Sen, of how far the latter has fallen short in the democracy stakes. Equally, it constituted an amiable shot across the bows of the Chinese leaders he will shortly be meeting in that city, a reminder that the Obama “pivot” to this part of the world is here to stay. Then there are the more obvious gains of the trip, the reminder that, with sanctions gone or going, this resource-rich, cheap-labor country is now open for American business.

But that’s exactly where Suu Kyi’s doubts must be concentrated. After all, the sweat shops of repressive Cambodia and communist-ruled Vietnam are booming: an Asian country needs only to be levered open an inch or two for that sort of business to pour in, and all too often it’s a race to the bottom in terms of labor costs and conditions.

When Aung San Suu Kyi is president of the country, of course, she will be free to change all that. But that when is a hostage to fortune. The general election that brought Thein Sein to power exactly two years ago was monstrously rigged; the hope is that the next one, in 2015, will be run as decently as were the by-elections of April this year that put Suu into parliament—but that’s only a hope. And even if the 2015 election is fair, any successor government to the present one will be hamstrung by the allotment of one-quarter of parliamentary seats to soldiers, and the sweeping powers, under the present, iniquitous constitution, of the military council to declare emergencies and seize power again at will.

The revolution, in other words, is only half made: the key element—reforming the constitution—has barely begun. In addition, there is no end in sight to either the ugly civil war in Kachin state, in the far north, or the persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas in the far west. If Obama is serious about Burma having the true lineaments of a democracy, and not merely the label, he needs to start listening to his Burmese friend again.