“We hope that this will be the beginning of a new era,” said Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after her National League for Democracy (NLD) won forty-three of forty-five contested parliamentary by-elections earlier this week. She also called on “all parties” – that is, the military junta and President Thein Sein who still rule Myanmar (Burma) – to “create a genuinely democratic atmosphere.”
One way for President Thein Sein to demonstrate conclusively that Myanmar has truly decided to come in from the autocratic cold would be for him to appoint Suu Kyi to be the country’s foreign minister. At a stroke, that would signal the regime’s determination to be fully legitimate. If Suu Kyi accepted the position she would confer legitimacy on Myanmar. She would also give her voice, and the principles that she has long embodied, a new resonance. Myanmar would then surely be able to take its rightful place among the modernizing nations of Southeast Asia. She would become even more fully that heretofore, Burma’s Nelson Mandela.
Her appointment would signal internally and externally that the pre-1962 democratic Burma was being revived. It would transform Burma’s image to itself and to the world, and create a sense of overwhelming hope for the future among all Burmese. Her becoming foreign minister would further recognize that the United States, Europe, and the United Nations were starting to embrace the new Burma and withdrawing sanctions and that Myanmar’s relations with world order were being completely revamped.
Suu Kyi and her political party overwhelmingly won the 1990 national elections but were never allowed to assume power. The military junta then in place, among which Thein Sein served as a leading figure for many years, put Suu Kyi under house arrest and jailed many of her associates. It cracked down on dissent and ruled repressively until late last year. Unless Thein Sein loses his mandate from the junta, and unless the generals who have long ruled and profited from their hold on Burma panic at Suu Kyi and her party’s new ascendancy, Myanmar now has an opportunity to continue its political, social, and economic recovery. This week it freed up the national currency. The kyat suddenly became fully convertible instead of being artificially valued (and available for endless arbitrage profiteering by insiders).
News reports have compared Thein Sein’s willingness to promote change to Mikhail Gorbachev’s relaxing of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Just as Gorbachev eased open the long shuttered doors of freedom, so Thein Sein seems to want to do the same, while still preserving the military’s ultimate brake on how fast Myanmar moves down the path of total openness. The Myanmar president still has yet to release several hundred remaining political prisoners and to resolve long-running conflicts with a number of the country’s non-Burman ethnic minorities. Yet he welcomed Suu Kyi’s electoral triumph and seems content, so far, to have perceived a vast outburst of democratic enthusiasm among Burmese everywhere.
Whether or not Myanmar’s political emancipation will continue on a steady course remains to be seen. But both Aung San Suu Kyi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seem to think that it will. Suu Kyi expresses confidence in Thein Sein, whatever his underlying motives. Once again, human agency – individual leadership – shows its importance, as both the actions of Suu Kyi and Thein Sein in coming together for Burma have personified.