A Female President for Myanmar

From the Wall Street Journal



YANGON, Myanmar—Aung San Suu Kyi is known as the gentle, Oxford-educated voice of democracy, fearless before ruling generals. Her story is so well-scripted it became a Hollywood movie.

But a Hollywood ending that leaves her at Myanmar’s helm is proving elusive, and some foreign diplomats and business people say that may not be such a bad scenario.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s supporters world-wide had once hoped Myanmar’s Nov. 8 election would enshrine her as president of a country that long suffered under military rule but has recently introduced political and civil freedoms.

Instead, the vote promises a stalemate, part of a decadeslong clash between military-linked leaders and Ms. Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most powerful opposition figure. In June, the legislature upheld a long-standing constitutional ban on anyone’s becoming president who has close foreign family members. Ms. Suu Kyi was married to a Briton who died in 1999, and her sons are British, so she can’t be named president even if her party wins a parliamentary majority.

She says she will assume a position of power anyway if her National League for Democracy party prevails. “I will make all the proper and important decisions,” she said at a news conference Thursday. “I am going to be above the president.”

There is, however, growing concern abroad and in some quarters at home about whether she is the best person to lead Myanmar as it takes steps toward democracy and tries to rebuild its economy by opening up to foreign businesses.

Several foreign diplomats say Ms. Suu Kyi has made it difficult for them to forge ties with the current government of President Thein Sein, which many nations believe has taken significant strides toward openness, even as others have questioned its commitment to reform. She often bristles when nations cooperate with the government, saying it legitimizes an administration that is keeping her from leadership, they say.

Western governments have been too optimistic in supporting Myanmar’s reforms, she said Thursday. She said she doesn’t want them to give “this present government the kind of encouragement that has led them to think that they’ve done [sufficiently] with regards to the democratization process.”

Some business officials say they worry she hasn’t shown an understanding of economics. She surprised visiting representatives of U.S. auto makers last year by suggesting they change their business model in Myanmar, say people who were present, and foreign oil-company executives say they were put off by her suggestion in recent years that they avoid working with Myanmar’s state-run oil company.

Myanmar’s political parties are doing last-minute campaigning ahead of Sunday’s elections, which are expected to be the freest and fairest that the country has had in decades. WSJ’s Shibani Mahtani reports. Photo: AP

It is “no secret” that many foreign companies aren’t convinced Ms. Suu Kyi can manage Myanmar’s economy, says one American business official, summing up the sentiments of U.S., regional and some local business officials interviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Ms. Suu Kyi declined to be interviewed for this article. She said on Thursday such criticisms proves she is “a real politician.”

Some of her associates say she feels betrayed by the U.S. for not doing more to support her presidential ambitions in the face of a ruling government she feels deceived her.

Supporters say her party’s victory would improve Myanmar in any case. “The situation will definitely be better than what we have now if the NLD forms the government,” says Sithu Aung Myint, a Yangon political analyst who believes Ms. Suu Kyi’s and her party’s anticorruption stance would mean “with her in charge, we will see more assistance to Myanmar, more foreign investment pouring in.”

Daniel Russel, the most senior U.S. State Department official for Asia, says: “It is not surprising that the leader of the opposition has different opinions on with what fervor foreign governments should push for changes in the country.” But, he says, referring to Myanmar by its old name, “the record will show that the U.S. strategy towards Burma’s transformation has been a balanced and smart one, and ultimately will prove effective.”

Ms. Suu Kyi garners high regard among many governments, particularly in the U.K. and Europe. She visited Beijing for the first time in June, meeting President Xi Jinping—an unusual approach for China, which rarely reaches out to opposition leaders.

And many in Myanmar view her as their nation’s natural leader. She “is our only good leader—she has to become president,” said Min Min Aye, a villager who waited with hundreds in September to see her speak in Kawhmu, south of Yangon.

Many voters interviewed weren’t aware she was barred from becoming president. But her party knows the constitution blocks what supporters have long sought for the 70-year-old Nobel peace laureate, a jubilant replay of Nelson Mandela’s postapartheid victory in South Africa. “The government still refuses to cooperate with us,” says Zeya Thaw, an NLD central-committee member.

People close to Ms. Suu Kyi say they believe the government persuaded her to go along with their reforms, after her 2010 release from house arrest, to legitimize them without intending to let her be more than one among 664 parliamentarians.

Legal barrier

Myanmar leaders have said the election will be fair. They defend the clause barring her from becoming president as necessary to curb foreign influence. The clause “is not written just for one person,” says Ye Htut, spokesman for President Thein Sein, a retired general.

“We have never said the constitution is perfect,” he says. “But it is an important first step to establish a political space for Burman politicians, ethnic minorities and the military to work together.” (The Burman are Myanmar’s ethnic majority.)

As Ms. Suu Kyi continues to urge foreign officials take a tough stance with the government, there is a growing sense in Myanmar’s diplomatic community that she has complicated their work, which requires relations with government and opposition. She has chided some foreign officials for embarking on development programs with the government, some diplomats in the country say.

Her relationship with Washington has become particularly complicated. President Barack Obama’s administration still lauds her. America has “tremendous respect” for her, says the State Department’s Mr. Russel. Her Capitol Hill supporters include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But some in Washington say they find her difficult to work with, although the U.S. has also been frustrated at times with leaders in Naypyitaw, the capital. While Ms. Suu Kyi once was the main determining factor in American policy toward Myanmar, they say, that should no longer be the case.

They cite episodes like one in August 2014, when she threatened to go to bed without seeing Secretary of State John Kerry because he was arriving late to her Yangon lakeside villa. She relented, say people familiar with the meeting, but cut the meeting short.

Afterward, one U.S. diplomat said: “D.C. is over Suu Kyi.”

A U.S. government official says Mr. Kerry “was very committed to meeting” and flew to Yangon “solely to see her.” Han Tha Myint, a senior NLD member, says that Ms. Suu Kyi was frustrated because she was busy but “understood that his schedule was also tight” and that the incident didn’t show a frayed relationship.

That year, before Mr. Obama was to attend a regional summit in Myanmar, Ms. Suu Kyi told a U.S. delegation he shouldn’t come lest he legitimatize the former generals running Myanmar. He attended.

Some foreign business officials who have met her say she can be dismissive. “She has a real tendency to lecture people,” says one. “None of our discussions with her have allowed for a back and forth on policy.”

In 2012, she spooked foreign energy companies, some oil executives say, by publicly saying they shouldn’t work with Myanmar’s state-run petroleum company, which she alleged lacked transparency, and requested foreign companies focus on agriculture instead. Some economists agree agriculture should be a focus, but the oil industry is now among Myanmar’s most lucrative.

When a U.S. delegation visited in 2014, she told auto-maker representatives they should produce bicycles for Myanmar, as most lived in rural areas, people who attended say.

Sean Turnell, Ms. Suu Kyi’s economic adviser and Myanmar expert at Sydney’s Macquarie University, says he disputes she meant it literally. “She likes to play with people sometimes, and this is certainly a metaphor,” says Mr. Turnell, who didn’t attend. “She is concerned that there has been a loss of focus by the government and foreign donors on agriculture, but she is not anti-industry.”

While she stresses individual rights and freedoms in the economic sphere, he says, and is concerned about the environment, her positions are “nothing that would keep the average inhabitant of any Western democracy awake.”

Election manifesto

Ms. Suu Kyi said Thursday a government she leads “can’t be worse than what we’ve had already” and that foreign investors concerned about the NLD’s economic policies should read the election manifesto.

The manifesto lists plans for managing the economy, including a central bank, a tax system, infrastructure improvements, better fiscal management and agricultural-sector upgrades. But the plans lack specifics, says David Steinberg, a Georgetown University Myanmar expert. The party “has had the time to formulate policies, but they have not yet done so,” he says. Abroad, “it has dampened confidence.”

An NLD spokesman says it is working to meld international economic practices with local laws. On Thursday, Ms. Suu Kyi said the current government’s economic overhauls benefited only a small group and “the great majority of our people are still poor” but that “whatever we consider good, we will keep.”

She told the Journal in February “the most important thing in this country is rule of law,” and “we may be able to come up with very nice-sounding economic policies, but without rule of law, nothing will be achieved.”

At home, she faces criticism among politicians who have fallen afoul of her. “Whatever she says, no one dares to complain or disagree,” says Nyo Nyo Thin, a lawmaker whose NLD candidacy she rejected. “This is a big problem for her as a leader.”

Win Htein, an NLD member, says Ms. Suu Kyi has a strong personality but is the only one who can inspire a landslide victory. “Nobody can match her.”

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says if the National League for Democracy wins, she will take a post “above the president.” Photo: Getty Images

Ms. Suu Kyi, whose father led the fight for independence from Britain in the 1940s, lived abroad before returning in the 1980s. When her party won a 1990 landslide, the military ignored it and banished her to her villa for most of two decades while the generals’ management of Myanmar’s resource-rich economy left it among the world’s poorest.

The junta stepped down in 2010, and Mr. Thein Sein’s government pledged a return to democracy. Ms. Suu Kyi was optimistic, especially after Mr. Thein Sein invited her to his home in 2011. NLD officials say he promised economic liberalization, an end to media censorship and that the government would consider constitutional change.

Mr. Ye Htut, the president’s spokesman, says Mr. Thein Sein delivered on his promises but never agreed to clear the way for her to lead, a process he says must include all Myanmar’s players, including the military.

Ms. Suu Kyi traveled abroad, telling leaders to support Naypyitaw. The U.S. began lifting sanctions.

Tensions soon emerged. Ahead of 2012 by-elections, in which Ms. Suu Kyi won a parliamentary seat, she told U.S. lawmakers she was outraged at Mr. Thein Sein’s campaigning for his military-linked party rather than her party, says someone familiar with the calls. The U.S. politicians explained that this was how politics worked.

Mr. Thein Sein, meanwhile, felt she upstaged him and acted as if she were de facto leader, say people familiar with his thinking. She toured the U.S. in 2012 while he was visiting the United Nations General Assembly there, attracting far more attention than he and receiving a Congressional Gold Medal.

She and he agreed to a private meeting there, people close to each camp say. Arriving at his hotel, she was shocked to find media present, her allies say, and left believing he was using her to burnish his reform credentials.

Mr. Ye Htut says the president wasn’t using the meeting thus but “seeking comments and opinions from all political players.”

Ms. Suu Kyi tried warming to the military. In 2013, she told the BBC she was “very fond of the army” and at an Armed Forces Day parade sat beside generals as tanks paraded. NLD members say she thought that could build support for amendments to let her be president. Constitutional changes require support from more than 75% of parliamentarians, 25% of whom are soldiers.

She crisscrossed Myanmar in 2014, collecting over five million signatures on a constitutional-change petition. This June, parliament voted against change.

Mr. Obama has said the ban “doesn’t make much sense.” Foreign governments have urged constitutional change, but most haven’t declared it necessary for elections, saying constitutional overhaul should be up to Myanmar’s people.

If Ms. Suu Kyi’s party wins a majority, she will gain considerable leverage. Parliament will decide several months later who becomes president. Possibilities include Mr. Thein Sein or someone from the NLD.

But there is no obvious NLD contender or consensus over whether Naypyitaw would allow a leader from the party. Some current and former NLD members have publicly criticized Ms. Suu Kyi for not grooming a successor palatable to the military.

She said Thursday the NLD “has sufficient talent to run a good government” and has “already made plans” to run it.

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