Challenges Ahead for Burma’s Suu Kyi

Published on November 18, 2010

By Nehginpao Kipgen

As a political scientist and someone who closely follows the Burmese political developments, I had little doubt about the certainty of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi on 13 November 2010, upon the expiry of the term of her house arrest.
Given the nature of the military junta, it was not surprising for many to be cautiously optimistic or even pessimistic about the release until she actually emerged from her house to greet thousands of supporters.
I have written numerous articles, mostly oped pieces that have widely appeared in about thirty countries. The articles primarily focus on the emerging politics in this Southeast Asian nation, the country that has yet to recover from the simmering conflicts since its independence from the British in 1948.
It was the November 7 general election that really concerned the military generals. The junta wanted to ensure that Suu Kyi was ostracized before the military power can be consolidated under a new form of government. The election was a carefully crafted political game.
Although the election result is yet to be officially announced, an overwhelming victory is expected for the military backed-Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In fact, unofficial reports have indicated a landslide win for the USDP.
Looking at the last 1990 general election in which the now-defunct National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly, the military is unlikely to accept a smaller win. Some of these seats will come from the 25 percent seats reserved for the military, which is guaranteed by the constitution.
Since Suu Kyi is a source of inspiration for many and an icon to many more millions of democracy advocates around the world, her freedom is a moment of joy and celebration. However, it is still too early to tell what the future holds.
What lies ahead for Suu Kyi is a great challenge. There is high expectation of her from the Burmese people and the international community alike. Like any other political leader around the world, she has both internal and external issues to deal with.
One political drama expected to unfold during the next few days and weeks is challenging the dissolution of her party, that is, NLD, and also possibly questioning the legitimacy of the November 7 election. In both cases, the military leaders are unlikely to rescind their verdicts.
With her fame and popularity, she will attract a large crowd wherever she travels. Regardless of whether there is or isn’t condition(s) to her release, the military agents will be keeping close eyes on her activities. She still remains a big threat to the military-led government.
The advantage Suu Kyi has over other politicians, including the military leadership, is the overwhelming support she receives from the country’s ethnic minorities, which roughly constitute about 40 percent of the population.
The ethnic minorities see the conflicts in Burma as a two-stage issue: democracy and autonomy. They see the present conflict as a consequence of the unfulfilled promises of the 1947 Panglong agreement, when the conferees agreed autonomy for the then Frontier Areas (ethnic minorities).
Moreover, the ethnic minorities see Suu Kyi as a leader not only for the majority ethnic Burmans. The minorities expect Suu Kyi to remember what her late father General Aung San once famously said, “If Burma receives one kyat, you will also get one kyat.”
Aung San’s statement reminds the fact that the Union of Burma was formed by different ethnic nationalities with the assurance that all will be treated equally under a democratic constitution.
Finding a peaceful solution to ethnic minorities’ problems will be a tremendous task for Suu Kyi. But if successful, it will be the most rewarding political achievement in the modern history of the Union of Burma.
If the international community wants to see a peaceful democratic Burma, it must extend every necessary support to Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, ethnic minority leaders and elements within the military-led government to resolve the longstanding Burma’s problems.
Under the present political structure, the military is unambiguously the most vibrant and cohesive institution. Therefore, the cooperation of the military is critically essential for Burma’s political stability.
These tentative suggestions will only be possible if some sort of cooperation can be established among the three important actors: the state (military), Suu Kyi-led opposition group, and ethnic minorities.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is an opportunity for Burma to move forward. The estimate 55 million Burmese people deserve nothing less than a democratic society where all ethnic nationalities can peacefully co-exist.
Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum ( whose works have been widely published in five continents – Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America. He currently pursues a Ph.D. in political science at Northern Illinois University. He can be reached at

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