The Noble Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been on a US tour, sharing her story of democratic struggle, redemption, and triumph. She spoke at the Asia Society last Tuesday almost after 40 years since her last visit to this non-partisan body. She collected the Congressional Medal of Honor on Wednesday in Washington, DC and was at the UN General Assembly meetings this week.
After decades of stagnation under military rule, Suu Kyi – as the leader of opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) – finds herself at the forefront of her country’s transition towards democracy and development. Her life through almost fifteen years of house arrest has been very difficult, but it may get even harder yet. As she admitted to an audience in Washington, “Sometimes it is more difficult to learn to work together than to suffer individually.”
Suu Kyi is the daughter of the revolutionary, Aung San, the founder of modern Myanmar, who was assassinated in 1947 a few months before his country achieved independence from Britain. She was raised by her mother from the age of two, educated in Myanmar, and attended college in India and the United Kingdom. She returned to her home country in 1988 to care for her mother, leaving behind her English husband and two young sons.
Return to Myanmar
Shortly after her arrival in Yangon, Suu Kyi emerged as the leader of the largest uprising in Myanmar’s history. She had the option to return to her family, but chose to stay in duty to her people.
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In 1990, when she won Myanmar’s first free election in 30 years, the military refused to recognise her victory. Suu Kyi was forced into house arrest, during which time she continued to push for reforms and the rule of law. In April 2012, she was elected into the country’s parliament, and continues her work to transform her country into a just and democratic state.
Her many speaking appearances in the US have been hailed as a victory of good over evil, democracy over military rule, and capitalism over socialism. The events have been widely attended by media, policymakers, and activists interested in peace and negotiation.
The lady dove has become a symbol of the rise of Asia, for her firm yet flexible nature. Michelle Yoeh has played Suu Kyi in a film chronicling her life, The Lady, already in theatres around the world. She seems to represent the perfect blend of East and West, with her English education and accent combined with her Myanmarese face and physique, or at least this is how she is projected in the Western media.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced Suu Kyi at the Institute of Peace. She said she was “happy to see her here as a free and open citizen”. Flickers of progress that President Obama spoke about a summer ago have led to a change where new laws have been enacted in Myanmar with a government that has reached a ceasefire.
Inroads to investment
India’s role in Myanmar has been expanding. After President Obama’s prodding the Indian parliament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Myanmar in May 2012. The Indian government has come out of its regional shell, providing trade, technological and capital investments to Myanmar.
Not unlike Bhutan, another small nation state in the foothills of Himalayas, Myanmar shares many cultural ethnicities with India. It will soon become a tourist attraction for the Western eco-travellers. Both Myanmar and India may soon offer bus services between Mandalay and Imphal (the capital city of the northeastern state of Manipur in India).
China is also making inroads into Myanmar. Myanmar’s President Thein Sein spoke in New York City at the UN and the Asia Society. He presented a new economic face of Myanmar to the world-wide audience on the heels of the Suu Kyi’s peacemaking and soft power.
He plans to attract development aid and economic packages from both China and the US, alike. “During the past week, Thein Sein, at a trade fair in China, reassured leaders there that Burma’s No. 1 investor has nothing to fear from Burma’s new embrace of the US and the West,” according to a report by Pakistan’s Daily Times.
According to a statement released by Asia Society, a closed meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Thein Sein in New York resulted in steps to ease an import embargo against Myanmar.
As per the same statement:
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s endorsement of a further easing of sanctions to audiences in Washington last week certainly helped to bring about this development. Her support also gave Congress a green light to initiate legislation that would allow the US to provide much needed financial aid to Myanmar through the World Bank and the IMF. There was worry that her visit to the US would overshadow him. But the reality is that she has helped pave the way for Thein Sein by striking a conciliatory tone and underscoring that they both are working toward a common goal.”
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It appears that the Myanmarese dove is flying high with the American eagle, Indian elephant and the Chinese dragon. The generally buoyant feelings all around mask tensions and deep philosophical differences reflected in all of Suu Kyi’s public statements. At every turn, Suu Kyi has been advancing the cause for human rights, development and democracy for Myanmarese citizens, both women and men alike, including ethnic minorities. It remains to be seen how this will be received in the Chinese capital.
When asked about Myanmar’s geopolitical location, she said her country is strategically located between India, China and Thailand. In other words, it will be one of the epicentres of America’s Pacific pivot. In fact, Suu Kyi suggested she would welcome such an outcome.
“Situated between China and India, at the crossroads of South Asia and South East Asia, naturally our relations with China and US and Burma-US relations would come up,” she said.
She further added, voicing the sentiments of her people, “We don’t know what democracy is like. But we don’t want dictatorship. We want to determine our own destiny.”
At Asia Society, Thein Sein also said, “Both Burma and US are democracies. When there are transitions in democracy there are changes in relationships. We will have to revive the culture of democracy. We will have to revive diversity and harmony. We will have to work in concert with civil society.”
Surrounded with his minister of commerce, finance, border security and international affairs, the Myanmarese president highlighted the transition to democracy already underway, including ceasefire, freeing of political prisoners, and the new foreign investment law.
Clearly, this transition will require a delicate balancing act between the US and China. An important chapter in America’s pacific pivot has been opened, which will provide future direction for how China will adapt to an emerging democracy in their own backyard.
Dinesh Sharma is the author of Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President, which was rated as one of the Top 10 Black history books for 2012. His next book on President Obama, Crossroads of Leadership: Globalization and American Exceptionalism in the Obama Presidency, is due to be published with Routledge Press.