Thomas Fuller (INYT): Since her party’s thumping election victory last month, Myanmar’s democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has said little and made few public appearances. So when she emerged recently in her constituency, KawHmu in Myanmar, she was mobbed by reporters and photographers, eager for some hint about how her party will govern after the new Parliament is seated next month.
It was not to be. The 70-year-old national icon had come to pick up trash, an exercise described by her party as bringing change through acts of individual responsibility. “Don’t just take photos,” she scolded the photographers as she crouched to the shrubs covering the sandy soil of the Irrawaddy Delta and began picking up bits of trash. “Help pick up the garbage.”
During the six weeks since she emerged as the most powerful person in this country of 51 million people, she has kept the country guessing on details of the transfer of power to her democracy movement from the military establishment that has ruled for more than five decades.
She has done a lot of meditating, one aide said. “She says when things are so complicated in her mind she meditates, and it gives her clarity and gives her simple answers,” said Phyo Min Thein, a member of the party’s budget committee. Nonetheless, behind the scenes, a transition is slowly starting to take shape.
Suu Kyi has met behind closed doors with minority ethnic groups, members of her party and crucial figures in the military with whom she will have to share power. While the participants have given little public indication of what was said, interviews with senior officials on both sides suggest that she has quietly conveyed a message that she will not rock the boat too much, too soon.
Like Nelson Mandela, another former political prisoner and Nobel laureate who came to rule a country that had kept him as a political prisoner, she appears keen on building bridges with her former jailers.
“The first intention was to soothe their nerves, that they would not be harmed,” said Win Htein, a senior party member and one of Suu Kyi’s closest advisers. “We just said we didn’t want revenge, that we didn’t have a personal grudge and that we wanted to move forward and talk about the future.”
Suu Kyi has told her party that it would be “unwise” to push the military right now, he said. Despite the election landslide, party members still recall the last election they won, in 1990, which the military followed up with the arrest of party leaders and two more decades of dictatorial rule.
She has also reassured the bureaucracy, which is packed with former military officers. At a meeting with senior civil servants last week, she told them they should not fear losing their jobs when her party comes to power.
“She said she has no plans to terminate any government staff, none at all,” said Win Myint, a member of Parliament for her party who attended the meeting.
For years she has said that she wants national reconciliation, not revenge, but she has also promised to shake up the system.
Her party’s election manifesto calls for a reduction in the number of government ministries to “establish a lean and efficient government.” Before the election, she campaigned extensively to change the constitution, which was written by the military and has a provision barring her from office.
Her party now appears to be willing to wait. “We won’t be doing anything that will reduce the power of the army for the time being,” Win Htein said. “We have to convince them that we really aim for national reconciliation.”
Analysts say it is hard to read how that approach has been received by the military. In one of the few public read-outs of the meetings she held with the military establishment, the grandson of the dictator Than Shwe wrote on Facebook that “everyone has to accept the truth that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be the future leader of Myanmar after winning the elections.”
Yet possible signs of friction with the military have also emerged. Officials in the outgoing government have expressed annoyance at her alliance with Thura Shwe Mann, a former general who was the No 3 official in the former dictatorship but who has since been spurned by the ruling party hierarchy. Suu Kyi appears to have selected him as a go-between with the military; he has also been discussed by analysts a possible proxy president for Suu Kyi.
Win Htein said the party will be looking to ethnic minorities to lead some ministries, an effort to build even broader support for her government, and that the party would look to experts outside the party to run some “important ministries” such as energy.
Phyo Min Thein, of the party’s budget committee, said the party would seek to follow through on its promise to decentralise power after years of hierarchical governance. “Right now the system is top-down,” he said. “We need to turn that upside down.”
Stronger team needed
Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, is widely seen as top-down, too. With the exception of a few senior members, the party has been largely a one-woman show since Suu Kyi helped found it in 1988.
During her years under house arrest, she grew accustomed to confiding in a close-knit group of advisers. Given Myanmar’s crushing problems — drug trafficking, corruption, ethnic insurgencies, poverty and inadequate health and education systems — even some close aides worry that she needs a deeper bench.
“It really is a problem,” said Nyan Win, a senior party members who also serves as Suu Kyi’s lawyer. “She needs a good team. She doesn’t have it yet.”
He also said that the party’s leadership should allow a greater diversity of opinions among its newly elected members of Parliament. On several occasions, party members and aides to Suu Kyi have been instructed not to speak with the media.
Perhaps owing to her days in confinement, when the military dictatorship sought to destroy the democracy movement, Suu Kyi puts high value on trust and loyalty among her aides, senior party members say.
Three women in particular are seen as her closest confidantes. Like Suu Kyi, all three speak English and were educated abroad. This is a stark contrast to the inward-looking military governments that were mistrustful of foreign influences.
One, Tin Mar Aung, is a medical doctor whose father was a prominent politician and ally of Suu Kyi. Her role has been described as a combination of chief of staff and lady in waiting. The second, Su Su Lwin, is a member of Parliament and the daughter of a founding member of the party.
The third, Ohmar Moe Myint, also a medical doctor, provides a connection to the Burmese business world. Her husband, Michael Moe Myint, runs a prominent oil and gas company and has close ties to the military.
All three women keep a low profile. Buttonholed in the halls of Parliament, Tin Mar Aung was asked for an interview. “Never,” she said.