At Large

The Lady Survives

Has the great Suu Kyi changed? Or has Burma?

By 2.18.11

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Aung San Suu Kyi's father was General Aung San, certainly still considered Burma's hero of independence. The route he took to gain that honor was not quite so glorious. The Japanese invaded Burma, a British colony, in World War II and Aung San soon became a leading collaborator. The Japanese did not provide the political independence they had originally promised, so Aung San re-defected to the British forces when they fought back from India. The war ended and the Burmese leader soon shifted back to being a rebel. The British departed and General Aung San gained a substantial part of the credit. Of course from his daughter's standpoint her dad was simply a committed patriot.

Aung San Suu Kyi left Burma when she was 14 years old and didn't return except for short periods for nearly thirty years. When she did visit, she was treated with deference. It was all quite natural. Suu Kyi was the daughter of the great general and all knew her and her heritage. The strikingly pretty child grew into a beautiful woman, a princess in manner. World traveled, educated at Oxford, married to a British scholar of Asian affairs, Suu Kyi edged into her forties an accomplished member of the extended post-colonial family of Britain's upper social echelon.

In 1988, at age 43, Suu Kyi returned to her homeland to be with her seriously ill mother, only to become embroiled in the democracy revolution of that year. She was placed under house arrest for her revolutionary involvement the following year. Her new life had begun as a political symbol and democracy movement leader marked by an eventual award of the Nobel peace prize.

Now after her most recent stint of seven years of house arrest, Suu Kyi is allowed to move about relatively freely, if still under loose surveillance. As yet she has not attempted to venture beyond the former capital city of Yangbon (Rangoon). Her term of house arrest ended conveniently after the November 2010 election, which satisfied the generals in command that their hold on the country was solid. Suu Kyi found that the national democratic movement from which she had been cut off for the last seven years had considerably changed.

As ageless as the Lady, as she is known to many, may appear, time has fragmented the democracy movement. She now finds that any central structure that previously had existed has divided both geographically and politically into small groups spread around Burma. The Lady's freedom has encouraged some of the remaining veterans of the past to hope for her once again to draw together the disparate elements of their movement, the National League for Democracy (NLD). So far she has remained unwilling or unable to return to her dynamism of the past. This suits the generals quite well.

One of the key factors in the change of the political environment has been the powerful impact of the transfer of the center of power from the former capital, Yangbon, to an entirely new capital at Naypayidaw, about 200 miles north of the old seat of governance. This is not merely a symbolic break with the past, but a physical rebalancing of the nation's political center. The Burmese leadership and their families now live there as do the now well-entrenched economic and political power brokers. The generals have constructed a new and not easily accessed physical political center. This protected enclave directs the affairs of the nation with the assistance of regional military, political, and tribal outposts.

Of equal importance in the growth and protection of current Burmese leadership is the improving economic environment that has come about through Chinese, Thai and Indian competition for development of industrial zones and other commercial projects such as the deep-water port at Dawei (aka Tavoy) on the Bay of Bengal. Pipeline construction from the Andaman Sea to Kunming for oil transshipment to China is another important political economic factor. Improving economic life of Burma tends to work against social revolution.

Pressure on Suu Kyi and the NLD is currently being applied by government sources to have them stay out of the argument of lifting international economic sanctions against Burma. The reality is that though the sanctions have little chance of being ended in the near future, these controls have done little to impede current investment from abroad. Suu Kyi so far has been hesitant to make a major issue of the sanctions, perhaps because she actually sees lifting them more positively than do her European and American supporters.

While in apparently excellent shape for a 65-year-old woman who has undergone so many years of incarceration and restriction, Aung San Suu Kyi no longer projects the dynamic energy that once was a mark of her political strength. Though she might term it a strategic outlook, Suu Kyi appears to be taking a longer view of democratic revolution since her release from house arrest three months ago. In any case, there appears to be little interest on her part in allowing herself to be maneuvered into a political game that would once again result in her imprisonment in any form.

The Lady has not lost her spirit or her patriotic verve, but the environment has changed in Burma over the last decade and she is well aware of that fact. Suu Kyi is restricted not only legally but by the tactical circumstance in which she finds herself. She remains a symbol of indomitable spirit for Burma and the rest of the world. The Lady has survived, and that in itself is a victory.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.