The burden of legacy: Aung San Suu Kyi’s presidential hopes
Aung San Suu Kyi’s story may be a prime example of why we created this blog. A person with global outreach and immense political capital – a beneficiary as well as a sufferer of her family connections. ‘The Lady,’ as she’s known by many, once again seems headed towards political deadlock in her struggle with the regime ruling Myanmar/Burma, in part because of her family ties. We’re tuning into this at a moment when not much seems to be going forward – to provide the context now so we can refer back to it when keeping you posted on developments later on.
The Nobel laureate leader of the National League for Democracy (the main opposition party in Myanmar) was born in Rangoon (today: Yangon) in 1945 and was only two years old when her father was assassinated by his rivals. Bogyoke (meaning General) Aung San was the founder of the modern Burmese army as well as the main negotiator of the country’s independence in 1947. After years of attempts to erase his memory by the present rulers of the country, he is today again celebrated as a national hero.
Suu Kyi inherited this legacy but had no ambitions to enter Burmese politics. She followed her mother to Nepal and India when she was appointed ambassador to the two countries in 1960, and afterwards went on to study in the UK, and then live in the US and work for the UN for a while. She returned home eventually to be at her mother’s bed after she had suffered a stroke. It was at this point when she joined the pro-democracy movement that originated in what seemed transitional times but culminated in the failed “8888 uprising” – so named after its starting date of August 8, 1988.
Still in that August, standing under a giant picture of her father, she told a massive gathering that ‘I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on’. Events, however, led to the military once again taking the reins, in September, cracking down on opposition protests.
Suu Kyi may have lost an important battle at that point, but her image as a global defender of human rights had only just begun to take off, in great part thanks to her husband, Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibet, author of many studies, among them this one.
Michael Aris, Aung San Suu Kyi, and son Alexander in 1973 (source: Aris family collection)
Their marriage was a symbol of voluntary sacrifice, as Suu Kyi remained under solitary house arrest right up till her ultimate release in 2010. In the meantime, Aris and their two children were rejected visas by Burmese authorities on most occasions and they could only meet with Suu Kyi a couple of times. The relationship carried the air of tragedy about it. It ended in 1999, when Aris died in the UK of prostate cancer, on his 53rd birthday. He patiently promoted his wife’s cause around the world and collected the awards she received, on her behalf – including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. His death must have been a shattering loss to Suu Kyi.
Myanmar has, since, taken steps towards a more democratic form of government. After she had been released in 2010, Suu Kyi was even elected to the parliament in 2012. But the current constitution still bars her from running in next year’s presidential elections – related to her family ties…
The Constitution – proposed, and subsequently accepted in a referendum, under military rule in 2008 – says that the president cannot be directly related to a foreigner. As Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British national, and so are her two sons, too, it is hard to see this provision as anything but targeted at her in the present context.
Earlier this year, there were signs of hope that this may change, and a parliamentary committee began to review the constitution. At the same time a petition to amend it was signed reportedly by over 5 million people. However, as of today it seems that the clause in question is going to stay. And this leaves the strongest opposition candidate with less than a fair chance to contest the elections.
Characteristically, she relates to this with a stoic’s optimism (if there is such a thing). Speaking to a group of artists a couple of days ago she promised:
“As I often say, 2015 will not decide which way our country will go forward—it is 2014 that will decide it. If we can progress the right way in 2014, we can get what we want in 2015.”
Unfortunately, she will be 70 by the time of the election next year. Even if the ultimate constitutional hurdle is removed, she will have a long life of struggle to look back to before she can realise her ambition.