The Year of Living Dangerously

Once a symbol of the human-rights struggle worldwide, Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s has fallen silent since her release. Peter Popham investigates why.

Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate and heroine of Burma’s democracy struggle, came to her father’s hometown last week to open a new school.

Fifteen years of house arrest have left no visible mark on her: at 67, she could pass for a woman 20 years younger. As slim and elegant as ever, she wore a traditional cream Burmese outfit, two strings of pearls, and pearl earrings. The red and white flowers in her hair had wilted somewhat in the heat, but Suu Kyi herself, as pale as her blouse, was glassily composed.

Once she had snipped the ribbon, she was ferried to a stage at the far end of the school’s soccer ground and made a speech. Nothing new here, either: she has given hundreds, perhaps thousands of speeches, since her launch back in 1988. What was different was the crowd—and the response.

During her tours of the country in 1989 and at her election speeches just last year, Suu Kyi drew thousands and thousands—sometimes hundreds of thousands—of passionate supporters. They would wait for her for hours in the full heat of the tropical sun. When she cracked jokes, they roared. When she chided them for chatting or asked them to sit down, they did as they were bid. Ma Suu, Mother Suu, the Lady, carried all before her.

Not so last Thursday. She herself was unchanged, improvising effortlessly as usual, talking of her famous father’s great achievements in winning Burma’s independence from British rule, urging the children in the crowd to emulate him. But the crowd numbered no more than 500. They were there because she was famous—still the most famous personality in Burma. But where was the voltage, the sense of anticipation, the excitement? The mood was tepid; the applause dutiful. Afterward she left in a convoy of party SUVs, disappearing in a cloud of dust.

There can be few things tougher than sitting out year after year of detention, with no idea of when it will end. But Suu Kyi has discovered that real politics is an altogether more slippery challenge.

On Monday it was exactly one year ago that Suu Kyi won a landslide victory in the election for Kawhmu, a poor township south of Rangoon, Burma’s commercial capital. Five months before, on her first visit to the U.S., then–secretary of State Hillary Clinton had warned her that politics was a different game from activism. How right she was.

The member of Parliament for Kawhmu now spends much of the year in Burma’s gigantic new capital, Naypyitaw, where her home is a nondescript gray cement bungalow, in Rose Valley, surrounded by identical homes. Now for the first time she has official status in the country and travels abroad without fear of being barred from returning—but the demands of politics have robbed her of her distinctive voice.

In the past year Burma has seen repeated murderous attacks by Buddhists, the majority population, on the Muslim minority. It has seen renewed hostilities by the Army against an ethnic minority in the far north, the Kachin, including aerial bombardment for the first time. It has seen villagers and monks who protested against a polluting Chinese-owned copper mine hospitalised after heavy-handed policing. Further attacks on Muslims have occurred in the past two weeks, with more than 40 dead.

As a worldwide symbol of the struggle for human rights, there has been hope and indeed expectation that Suu Kyi would speak out on any or all of these issues, to play the role of moral guide and teacher, which she fulfilled so admirably in between her bouts of detention. Instead there has been an uncomfortable silence.

Suu Kyi herself has refused all media requests for months, so we cannot ask her why she has fallen silent. The most likely explanation is that intent on winning the presidential election in 2015, she is taking care not to alienate the mass of voters—overwhelmingly Buddhists, and of her own Burman ethnicity—on whose support she will depend.

Meanwhile, she is also taking care not to fall out with the ex-generals and serving soldiers by whom she is surrounded in Parliament. Burma’s transition from military tyranny to democracy is only half accomplished. She needs these still-powerful men to be sure that they can trust her if she herself obtains power. That may be why she was photographed last week sitting next to the head of the Burmese Army at the annual Armed Forces Day parade—a photo op that enraged many of those who used to idolize her.

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Yet it is too soon to conclude that Suu Kyi has betrayed her cause. Her role in the struggle over the copper mine suggests she is playing a long game.

After the protest was crushed, she visited the victims in hospital. Then, when President Thein Sein asked her to head a commission of inquiry into the mine’s operation, she agreed.

Last month the commission delivered its report—in fact she herself brought it to the protesters’ village to explain it to them directly. Her report said the copper mine should stay, but locals should be better compensated, and environmental controls should be tougher.

At the village meeting, reaction to the report was furious: Suu Kyi was photographed in heated arguments with protesters who felt she had betrayed them. Her standing in the world rankings for right-on activists took yet another dive.

But clearly Suu Kyi is not interested in those rankings. She is more interested in getting her people to understand what is possible and what is not possible. Burma needs to exploit its resources—responsibly. The people have to understand that, including the people directly affected. That was her lesson—an unpleasant one. It was bitter medicine to swallow.

But swallow it they did. When this reporter visited the village last week, he was shown a letter that had just been drafted by the heads of the villages affected by the mine, addressed to the authorities, endorsing Suu Kyi’s proposals. Aung Zaw Oo, a former local headman, told me, “Our first desire is for the mine to close. But if that is not possible, we accept Aung San Suu Kyi’s report as a basis for dialogue.”

It was one small victory on a long, hard road.

A paperback edition of The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Peter Popham is published in the U.S. this month from The Experiment.