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The Wait is Over but the Game is on for the Real Test of Leadership

By Wagaru Mon

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Burma has reached a new era of politics with a contest for new leadership between a man and a woman. A man who comes from the military elite, under the name of Thein Sein, and a woman from a famous political family, under the name of Aung San Suu Kyi (Daw Suu).

After 24 years of waiting for the lady of the land, the last step on Burma’s road to democracy has begun. Fifty- million-plus people share aspirations for a real change in their nation, and to rebuild the country’s position in the new 21st century world. Burma’s long wait for democracy is no longer only a dream, but still, the game is not yet over. The Sunday by-election was an anticipated test for new reforms throughout the country which have been long overdue, reforms which make room for a real political system to be put into place. The prominent political party led by Suu Kyi won almost all of the 45 seats. What follows will be a contest of leadership between the current ruling military elites (led by President Thein Sein) and Suu Kyi. This will draw a line for the next 1000 days leading up to the next general election in 2015.

After 6-8 months of public engagement and fostering the weak and broken links of her party resources and human capital, Suu Kyi took a risk and gained the mandate in both moral and principal ground, which reign over the status quo of the military elites. Despite being less popular among the public at large, these elites escaped with their own survivors. Suu Kyi simultaneously saved the victims of the ruling military elites while also being saved herself by the ruling generals for being allowed to participate in politics.

As this round of political fever ends, Burma now enters a new contest (phase of) for political leadership. Non-military elites within parliamentary circles and non-elected members of other prominent circles stand the best chance of giving Suu Kyi the necessary space and time for national leadership. The nation as a whole will see a contest of leadership, for many years to come, between the ruling military elites, led by President Thein Sein, and Suu Kyi’s circles which include the country’s future ethnic leaders.

‘Progress is evident, but likely to be sporadic and uneven. The Burmese will proceed at their own pace and foreign observers can assist, but will not have control over the process. That assistance should begin by understanding and respecting the unique dynamics of society, as remarked this week by David I. Steinberg, Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.

Some observers interpreted that Suu Kyi won the vote but lost the battle of politics in a strategic sense. Despite this, morale is high in the optimist’s camps. After 24 years of struggling for compromise on critical questions of ‘regime change’, Suu Kyi captured the imagination of the nation, much like her father did in 1942 during his year fighting for independence from the British. At last, he won the battle among his rival ideologist with his attitude of risk-taking principle. Suu Kyi, like her father, won the battle over her hardliners or ideologists, key members for entering into the ballot box, but won the support from home and aboard.

After reading news and analysis from world press to local news, it is clear that Suu Kyi was careful to avoid stoking the fire and upsetting the ruling military elites. She avoided subjects such as those regarding ‘punishment for human rights violations to those who committed crimes against humanity, self-determination for ethnic people and establishing a genuine federalism’ in Burma. According to sources from Moulmein, ethnic leaders are not feeling comfortable that Suu Kyi sent her candidates to represent the ethnic constituencies for this by-election. This was despite the ethnic parties having their own candidates that they had hoped to see running. However, Suu Kyi could not afford to lose extra seats for NLD if she hoped to continue forward with her mission to lead national political roles.
This contest for leadership between Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein brings in a new era of politics for Burma. The next 2-3 years will draw a line either for the survival of the ruling military elite, or for her own party. This is the real test, and one worth watching.

Suu Kyi sent a clear message to the ruling military and the public that her mission is to restore the rule of law and amend the constitution in places where it is not in line with the principles of democratic standards. It is not her taste that playing racial politics is the best interest of the nation.
I have listened to Suu Kyi’s speeches in Burmese these past six weeks leading up to the election. Make no mistake, Suu Kyi made it clear to the public that the nation must be ruled by the publics’ conscience not by the interests of one group.

Observers from the West warned that the reformers in Myanmar believe that popular support for the political transition can be consolidated only if real improvements in the quality of life can be delivered to the country's poverty-struck masses and struggling middle class. They fear that if the country's economic decline is not arrested and reversed relatively soon, it will lead to widespread dissatisfaction and instability, threatening a return to harsh security measures”, remarked Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of global policy programs at the Asia Society, and Priscilla Clapp, a retired minister-counselor in the U.S. Foreign Service and former Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Burma.

It was Suu Kyi and her inner-circle, with the support of students and monks, that challenged the one-party ruling system in 1988 in Rangoon. The nation has been waiting for her for over 22-years, suffering emotionally and in other forms from the lack of political will by the ruling military elites whom refuse to honour the result of 1990 election won by her party as majority. The past is history, but the present is a moment of truth.

Suu Kyi and Thein Sein have two master strokes together for rebuilding a nation with trust and hope for national unity. Suu Kyi must win the hearts and minds of the ethnic leaders and people in order for them to have faith in her.  Thein Sein also equally must win the hearts and minds of all members of the military circles so that the nation can move towards a new system of government, laws and national consolidation (national reconciliation) for the sake of all.

Suu Kyi and the President share a common vision, but this is politics, and so the contest for leadership and power and the national high office remain. Both leaders must not avoid but act in good faith in order to heal the wounds of the public over the past 60 years of armed conflicts. The rights of ethnic people for local autonomy and self-determination on education, health, cultures and local development need to be acknowledged. Constitutional reform is a key task for both leaders if they wish to bring the nation and people behind them.

American scholar Robert A. Dahl from Yale University, noted in his 1956 book, “A preface to Democratic Theory”, that ideas which could help Burma’s new leaders in searching for a meaningful political debate. Dahl remarked about Americans that: ‘most of all, however, the men at the Convention misunderstood the dynamics of their own society.  They failed to predict correctly the social balance of power that was prevailing even in their own lifetime. They did not really understand that in an agrarian society lacking feudal institutions and possessing an open and expanding frontier, radical democracy was almost certain to prevail in politics and almost certain to be conservative about property’.

Daw Suu was educated in the West while other ethnic leaders and military elites  were educated at home; therefore, ‘radical democracy’ is a moment that she has captured in this journey.
The wait for her is over, but the game now is to see the real contest for leadership and ideas take place in new Burma, for the sake of all.


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The Wait is Over but the Game is on for the Real Test of Leadership

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