I’m writing this sitting in a Yangon hotel that I’ve been to many times. The first, was the most memorable because I was chased through the lobby by the Special Branch of Myanmar’s police who had followed me from the headquarters of the National League for Democracy where I had interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi just after her release from house arrest.
It was late 2010, and back then, it wasn’t even safe to mention her name in public because she was the enemy of the military state that had been running Myanmar for almost 50 years, and in the process, had shut the country off from the outside world.
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The reason I’ve shared this slice of nostalgia is that, on one hand, it’s remarkable how much has changed in this country, and on the other, how things have stayed the same.
Six and a half years after I was comically pursued around the streets of Yangon for being a journalist in a place I wasn’t welcome, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party is in government and she’s the state counsellor. Big developments.
Here’s another: It seems to have become fashionable to criticise Suu Kyi.
There was a time, not long ago, when it seemed the whole world was in love with her, and was full of hope and optimism about what she was going to do for the country. Leading the charge at times were journalists, some of whom seemed determined to cut her as much slack as they could, for as long as they could.
To a certain extent that attitude was fair enough given what she had been through under military rule, and the sheer magnitude of her task ahead in trying to reconnect Myanmar with the international community and fix the problems that military rule and the resulting economic sanctions had brought.
But my attitude has always been to wait and see what she does and how she performs. I remember saying when she was released from house arrest that she could turn out to be a terrible leader or politician because we simply didn’t know at that time.
Just because she was a tireless campaigner for democracy and human rights, didn’t mean she would become a great anything, let alone a great leader of her country.
I’m not saying that she’s terrible at anything, and I certainly don’t envy the position she’s in – which is at times made more difficult because of the actions of some in the military and their allies in government ministries who work to undermine her power.
What I am saying is that there are worrying signs. I’ve talked to many people recently who say they’re beginning to lose faith in her leadership, which, within the NLD, has always been carried out in a top down style.
There are even some who are involved in government quietly saying they enjoy dealing with military generals more than the state counsellor because they’re treated with more respect.
It’s clear that the generals are still in control in Myanmar and that means that Suu Kyi is going to struggle to push through the reforms that she wants to in the timeframe that the country desperately needs.
The army has played a clever game, stepping back from the spotlight, while still enjoying the benefits of power and leaving the NLD leader to be centre-stage, taking much of the blame for some of the country’s problems.
But she still has a voice that she could use to send the message to people at home and overseas, to prove she cares and that she’s still fighting for the same things she’s always fought for: freedom and human rights.
Those are things that she and others had taken away from them for many years and of which many people in Myanmar are still being robbed. But Suu Kyi has lost her voice and if she doesn’t find it soon, more people may start to lose faith.