By the old Shwedagon pagoda, there stands the tall whitewashed tomb of Queen Supayalat, immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his lines about a beautiful “Burma girl” whose “name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen.” On one side of “Her Late Majesty, Chief Queen Suphayalatt,” I find a memorial to U Thant, the former United Nations secretary-general; on the other, that to ambassador Khin Kyi, widow of this country’s independence hero, General Aung San. One day, there will be a monument to their even more formidable daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who, by then, probably will be a former president, and is already treated like a queen.
Yet, we need to remind ourselves she isn’t yet president. Not for her Czech playwright Vaclav Havel’s magical three-month ascent from persecuted dissident to the president’s castle. Instead, there are three years of complex struggle ahead before Ms. Suu Kyi may, at 70, become head of state.
As important, these years of transition, until parliamentary elections in 2015, followed by the indirect election of a president, will be decisive for the future of this impoverished, traumatized and divided country. So much needs to be done in three interlocking areas: politics, peace and the people.
The politics are intricate. Most international coverage has focused on the relationship between President Thein Sein, a decent if dull man genuinely concerned about his poor county, and the uncrowned queen. One is told of a pivotal moment in August of 2011 when Ms. Suu Kyi was invited to the President’s private quarters in the surreal new capital of Naypyidaw and welcomed especially warmly by his wife. But as important is her working relationship with the parliamentary speaker, Shwe Mann, another former general with political ambitions.
Meantime, there has to be a proper election law, electoral register and the conditions for a fair campaign. Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has to win a landslide victory among the country’s ethnic Burman majority. (Bet on that.) They should prepare themselves well for government. (Don’t be so sure of that.) They also have to forge alliances with parties from the large swathes of this Southeast Asian Yugoslavia inhabited by ethnic minorities. Then, despite a 25-per-cent appointed military bloc in parliament, they must get the more than 75 per cent parliamentary vote required to remove the current constitutional bar on someone with close foreign relatives – i.e., her – becoming president.
Although some Burmese observers remain skeptical, I would place a large bet that, one way or another, this will happen. But, of course, it involves her doing real politics, rather than remaining a moral heroine or becoming a British-style constitutional monarch. She herself makes no bones about this. At the unprecedented literary festival that brought me to Rangoon, she talked eloquently about novels and poetry, but said that almost every moment of her life is now spent on politics.
It’s vital, however, that this country achieves peace as soon as possible. To do so, Burma must be a Yugoslavia-in-reverse. Yugoslavia was a multiethnic state that fell apart in politically orchestrated interethnic violence precisely at the moment of a very imperfect transition to democracy. Burma, officially Myanmar, is a multiethnic state in which many ethnic minority areas have already experienced decades of armed conflict. If these issues are not resolved before the 2015 elections, with a degree of federalism that itself would require constitutional change, then voters might be polarized, late-Yugoslav-style, along ethno-religious chauvinist lines.
Last, but really first, are the people. When I last travelled here, in 2000, before being blacklisted from the country, the place was strewn with the military regime’s Orwellian propaganda posters bearing slogans such as “People’s Desire.” But the truth is that the military and its cronies have realized their own desires at the expense of their people’s for decades. Their lavish villas contrast obscenely with the hovels of the majority of the population, who still struggle to subsist as farmers. And Myanmar has slipped to 149th on the UN Human Development Index, with an average of just four years of schooling.
The good news is that many well-intentioned people – Burmese returning from long spells abroad, former political prisoners, NGO activists and foreign donors – are working with the current government, as well as with the National League for Democracy, to ensure that transparency, accountability and the rule of law are put in place right now. Otherwise, Orwellian dictatorship will morph into entrenched crony capitalism.
Whatever the criticisms to be made of Ms. Suu Kyi – for example, over her apparently tactical reticence on ethno-religious violence between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingyas – there’s no doubt her global charisma and tireless personal engagement contribute to the scale and quality of this support. That’s another reason she must be, will be, Burma’s new queen – sorry, president.
So there it is: The fairy tale is over, but the happy ending has yet to begin. There are three years of tough politics ahead. This will not be neat or clean; such transitions never are. But with help from its friends, Myanmar still has a historic chance of ending up a far better place than it has ever been.
Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
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