March 29, 2017 10:15 pm JST
Mary Callahan

Aung San Suu Kyi's quiet, puritanical vision for Myanmar

The state counselor focuses on moral principles rather than concrete solutions

Aung San Suu Kyi, center, and ethnic representatives of groups which signed a 1947 peace deal with her late father, Gen. Aung San, attend Union Day celebrations in Panglong, Myanmar, on Feb. 12. © AP

After one year in power, Aung San Suu Kyi has gone all but missing from the public ear. Her voice, long known for inspiring her people, is heard in only a handful of public appearances or daily private meetings with officials and foreign dignitaries, while there is nearly no interaction with the media.

When she does occasionally address a public audience, she repeats abstract concepts such as "national reconciliation," "rule of law" and "peace." But what is even more noticeable in her speeches is a commanding and pedagogical rhetorical style underpinned by a puritanical political ideology. The latter shows a world view that values individual fulfillment of ta-wun (duties or responsibilities) rather than exercise of akwin-ahyeh (rights or entitlements).

Those who express concern that the state counselor and her government have revealed little in the way of actionable plans to address the country's myriad problems are not entirely wrong. But they misjudge in thinking that Suu Kyi still considers it necessary to speak about the mundane topics of electricity, sanitation, healthcare, transportation and education -- or even the compromises necessary to forge her frequently stated priorities: constitutional reform and peace between ethnic communities and the Burman-dominated Union government and military.

This is a shift away from her self-portrayal as a politician focused on assuring the public that she would meet their needs as they view them. In her 2015 campaign promises on the economy and society, and her pledge in her (Burmese) New Year address last April, she committed herself to ensuring that "the people won't suffer," and that "the government shall exist for the citizens."

Make no mistake: Suu Kyi, as de facto head of the National League for Democracy-led government, is still pressing her ministers, foreign aid donors and the private sector to modernize the country in all sectors.

But her view of what constitutes her personal responsibilities as national leader is no longer one of articulating an actionable plan for modernization, but rather one that she defined more than 25 years ago in her book, Freedom from Fear -- to spur a "revolution of the spirit." She increasingly sees her role as using her voice, formal positions and iconic status to achieve a transformative remolding to a moral-based national political economy, starting with each person's mindset.

She has been increasingly clear in recent speeches that she does not consider it proper for citizens to expect or ask the government for help in solving the personal, community or regional problems that dominated the 2015 election campaign. Instead, individuals should muster "courage" and "self-confidence" to take personal responsibility for their own and the nation's solutions. She espouses a socially conservative ideology of radical self-sufficiency and laissez-faire relations between the state and society, although this only forms part of the complex psyche of an internationally recognized national leader who led a long-running opposition to repressive military rule.

The Kennedy spirit?

This moral political world view that was already apparent in the early 1990s has been more evident over the past year. "Think of what you can contribute for the development of your country, not what benefits you can have from your country," she told delegates at the Independence Day celebrations staged by the NLD in Yangon on Jan. 4, 2016, shortly before it took power at the end of March. It was an appropriate comment when party members were jockeying for positions in the forthcoming government.

This paraphrasing of John F. Kennedy's line: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," however, has unfortunately become her mantra in peace-related meetings over the last 15 months. In what is arguably one of the most complex peace processes in history, her counterparts - representatives of ethnic-based civil society, political party and armed groups - hear nothing but alarm bells in the Kennedy-inspired line.

This moralist call for self-sacrifice has done little to build trust with the ethnic populations that have historically been excluded from receiving adequate services and recognition from their national government, which has been dominated by the majority Burman population and a military that conducted brutal counterinsurgency campaigns that inflicted destruction on ethnic minority communities for decades.

This year has seen a deepening of Suu Kyi's ascetic moral rhetorical tone on the rare occasions she has publicly shared her vision. On Feb. 12, 2017, it shaped her performance at the 70th anniversary of the Panglong Agreement ceremony between leaders of three ethnic groups and General Aung San, head of the pro-independence forces and father of Aung San Suu Kyi. The state counsellor and chair of the National Reconciliation and Peace Center was strident in her demand for self-sacrificing, moral courage. In her much-anticipated speech, broadcast live on the internet, she told invited government, army and ethnic representatives that all groups, especially those who had not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, to join the pact and "be involved in peace talks," as her process would inexorably go forward.

"Be courageous and take risks for the interest of the people. Sacrificing and taking risks are the supreme courage," she declared. Citing a conversation with her father, who died when she was only two years old, she told those fighting for the recognition of ethnic rights that being "on the defensive means doing what should be done and being ready, prepared to bear the consequences resulting from what is done. This kind of courage is the real courage. What made Panglong [in 1947] a success was based on the belief on the part of indigenous races."

What ethnic minorities heard in this exhortation and the rest of the speech were suggestions that their worries about the current peace negotiations were not in fact based on serious problems in the process, but rather reflected a a shortage of "courage" and an unwillingness to sacrifice for the greater good. For Suu Kyi, such a message was self-evident and it likely played well with her elite political rivals in the military.

Lacking much in the way of experience with the abuses, devastation and sacrifices borne by ethnic populations in war zones for decades, Suu Kyi delivered what was to her a clear moral vision. This was to set aside individual or group desires for specific rights, concessions or promises in favor of proceeding with the process she had laid out based on her political and moral legitimacy -- as demonstrated in the 2015 election landslide and her status as heir to her father's legacy.

Studied aloofness

This exhortation to keep silent when it comes to physical, material and economic problems as well as possible government solutions has also been expressed to other audiences. In her opening speech and roundtable discussion at a forum on women in business in early March, broadcast live on national television and the internet, she pressed the nation's top businesswomen, non-governmental organization leaders and political activists to join her quest to build peace through "inclusive growth," which was the slogan of the conference. Rather than offering any concrete vision of how that inclusivity could be achieved, she simply stated: "Business cannot flourish in a country devoid of peace. The business that we're supporting is inclusive of all people, not for any particular individual, corporation or organization."

Throughout the forum, she appeared skeptical of the relatively moderate reforms advocated by the delegates, such as governmental rules governing childcare, parental leave and healthcare in the workplace. As corporate leaders argued for greater inclusion of women in business and politics, Suu Kyi responded firmly, declaring: "It is of great importance to prove that our women have the courage to take responsibility with their increasing demand for rights."

Taking most participants by surprise, she urged the women leaders to pay their taxes and invited them to contribute to her peace fund. Rather than addressing seriously the call from some quarters for a quota of women to be engaged in the peace process, she instructed her audience to devote themselves to raising "peace-loving" children, something she - only half-jokingly -- quipped was beyond the capacity of men. "Only demanding rights without assuming responsibility and accountability, which are wholly left to the government, does not comply with democracy standards," she explained.

The continued silence of Suu Kyi, outside of occasional public sermons on her vision of moral rectitude in a democracy, has had both positive and negative consequences for her and the country.

She has avoided the messy daily debates over such issues as electricity purchasing agreements going awry, the use of a draconian new censorship tool under the telecommunications act to silence dissent, massive population displacements resulting from escalating violence in Rakhine state and the northern states, and other missteps of her government.

Her unexpected absence from these heated debates has enabled Aung San Suu Kyi to maintain her status as a political icon who offers not only hope, but also precisely what she preaches -- moral fortitude. This contrasts favorably with the repressive propaganda of the old military regime before it backed away from complete power in 2011. She appears to have left communications about turgid and unpleasant everyday politics to her spokesman, Zaw Htay, in occasional posts on her office's Facebook page. This preserves her much-loved voice to conveying messages of personal and community duty.

But a country that that still falls short in improving living standards, attracting responsible investment, creating meaningful jobs and equipping the next generation with critical thinking and marketable skills is in dire need of Suu Kyi's help to shape and communicate policies that draw on the immense political stock of her election victory and her democratic legacy.

That she has refused to engage by offering well-articulated and concrete plans has disappointed many who voted for her party. To be fair, few of the serious problems that the NLD government inherited after decades of economic, social and political mismanagement can be easily or quickly fixed. But none can be tackled during the remaining four years of her government without a strategic, pragmatic vision of reform directly from the state counselor and firm, vocal and clear commitment based on her considerable political capital.

Mary Callahan is associate professor of international studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, and author of "Making Enemies: War and State-Building in Burma" (Cornell University Press, 2003)

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