Ric Saludo’s former colleague Roger Mitton contributed this article
“I want to run for president and I’m quite frank about it,” Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told last week’s World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in the capital Naypyidaw. “We’re going to work for the constitution to be amended.”
It would be no small thing, however, to muster the required 75 percent parliamentary vote repealing a ban on citizens with foreign spouses and children —like Suu Kyi—from running for national leadership.
“What we need is national reconciliation and commitment to go forward with this process,” she expounded. “You cannot ever say that anything is irreversible, because in politics, there’s always a possibility of reversibility.”
Indeed: witness how the popularity of Myanmar President Thein Sein is soaring these days, while that of the once-universally cheered Suu Kyi is tumbling. And their respective positions on the protection of minorities — a crucial issue in any democracy — are also the reverse of what may expected of a military stalwart and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Perhaps the biggest political reversal for Myanmar in ages occurred two weeks ago when Thein Sein became the country’s first head of state to visit Washington in nearly a half century.
Yes, Suu Kyi went to the United States last September and met President Barack Obama, but it was a private visit devoid of the White House glitz and hoopla accorded to Thein Sein.
In the Oval Office, it was evident that Obama and Thein Sein hit it off and were genuinely on the same wavelength, which had not been the case when the American Democratic leader met the Myanmar democracy icon last year.
Back then, Obama took umbrage at the way Suu Kyi urged him not to go to Myanmar yet, because she doubted that Thein Sein’s reforms were sincere and would continue.
Obama, however, had already decided to seize the moment and visit the country en route to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Phnom Penh last autumn, and he was not going to be dissuaded by the lady’s partisan qualms.
Suu Kyi was visibly miffed when the U.S. president spurned her advice, which was really given because she did not want Thein Sein to get the kind of rapt publicity in America that she had been used to getting all for herself.
Well, that was one small thing.
Then, at last month’s White House meeting, Obama continually referred to his guest’s country as Myanmar, the name adopted by the ruling junta in 1989. He studiously avoided using the old colonial name Burma, still preferred by Suu Kyi and her sycophants.
That was no small thing.
Coined by the British, the old name refers to the majority Bamars of the central plains, who are Buddhist and regard themselves as superior to the minorities around the perimeter of the country. It is a racist term that is never used by indigenous speakers, who always call their country Myanmar, an inclusive name that embraces all ethnic and religious groups.
So that was another thing. Then, in a much lauded speech at Washington’s School of Advanced International Studies, President Thein Sein distinctly said “Muslims” several times.
And that was no small thing, given the visceral animosity of the majority Bamars towards his nation’s small Islamic community. Thein Sein bravely said that his government must provide better protection for Muslims from attacks by Buddhist bigots, as happened again in Lashio late last month.
For what it is worth, he graciously avoided noting how Suu Kyi seems to find it difficult to talk about this subject, and how she has kept relatively mute about the murderous pogroms targeting Muslims.
Said Jim Della-Giacoma, the Asia program director for the International Crisis Group: “Suu Kyi’s near-silence on this issue has underlined how far out in front of popular opinion Thein Sein has been.”
Some may argue that Suu Kyi is politically astute in playing to the Burmese majority by saying nothing about their anti-Muslim sentiments and eruptions. Still, that silence cannot but run counter to her statement at the WEF meeting that it doesn’t help national reform if too many people feel excluded from the process. You mean like Muslim Rohingyas, Madame?
While stressing that much Myanmar reform still needs to be done, President Obama used the Oval Office meeting to praise Thein Sein’s leadership “in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform”.
Obama added: “We’ve seen credible elections and a legislature that is continuing to make strides in more inclusivity and greater representation of all the various ethnic groups in Myanmar.”
That’s not a misprint. America’s first black president, who should know a thing or two about minority concerns, did not skirt the ethnicity issue.
Thein Sein replied in kind and promised to free more political prisoners and resolve the ethnic conflicts not just by ceasefires, but by incorporating minority parties into mainstream politics.
Plainly, the Oval Office encounter was an incredible reversal from just three years ago when all of Myanmar’s ruling leaders were banned from U.S. soil. Today, American officials laud Myanmar as a model of emerging democratisation for the likes of dictatorial Laos and Vietnam.
And while the rewards are self-evident, one item stood out: the American Centre in Yangon, which trains political and civil society activists, now has the highest attendance of any such centre in the entire world.
And that is no small thing either.
Roger Mitton is a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and former bureau chief in Washington and Hanoi for The Straits Times of Singapore.