BANGKOK, THAILAND— Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told an audience in Japan that her country's democratic reforms are not yet irreversible and still depend on the powerful military, which ruled Burma for decades. Political analysts say the speech is another sign the Nobel laureate is trying to balance relations with the military and her party's political ambitions.
During a speech Wednesday at Japan's Tokyo University, Suu Kyi acknowledged Burma has started on the path to democracy but suggested the gains remain fragile.
"There are many people who ask me whether the process of democratization in Burma is irreversible. Now I always say very simply, it will be irreversible once the military has accepted it," she said.
Burma’s leaders have won praise from foreign politicians and heads of state who have embraced the country’s political reforms as signs of democratic opening.
But Suu Kyi's words of caution this week underscore the complicated relationship she and her National League for Democracy still have with a military that remains the most powerful force in the country.
Political analysts say the NLD's desire to change the 2008 military-drafted constitution to make it more fair may be leading to excessive compromise. The constitution sets aside a quarter of all lawmaker positions for the army, and it does not allow Suu Kyi to run for president.
Aung Thu Nyein, director of the Burma think tank Vahu Development Institute, said the opposition is in a tough position because it needs military support. "It is a quite delicate for her, you know, to deal with the military because the 25 percent of the un-elected parliamentarians are still in the parliament and they are quite influential for to make constitutional reform. At the same time, the important ministries such as home affairs ministry and border affairs ministry are still controlled by the military."
Critics speak out
Suu Kyi and the NLD have been criticized by political and human rights activists for not sufficiently challenging the ruling party of President Thein Sein since gaining seats in parliament.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.
"It was quite ironic that when she was under house arrest, to me, I think she was more vocal then. Now she has been released and she become a free woman, we hear less and less and less of, you know, issues that we expect her to raise this, even though raising these issues would put her in conflict with the military," said Chachavalpongpun.
Suu Kyi was criticized for failing to speak out against persecution of ethnic and religious minorities during outbreaks of sectarian violence that have displaced more than 100,000. Despite the mostly one-sided attacks, Suu Kyi has refused to defend Muslim communities or condemn Buddhist monks who encouraged the attacks.
Rule of law
At the end of a week-long visit to Japan, she told students at Tokyo University the challenge for Burma remains establishing the rule of law.
"So we have had no rule of law in Burma over the last 50 years, what we have had is rule of an authoritarian government and rule of law has been weakened to the point that it became non-existent. We are trying to re-establish it," said Suu Kyi.
Political analysts say she also is worried that speaking up for Muslim minorities might alienate her constituents in Burma's Buddhist majority.
Suu Kyi is widely expected to run for president in 2015 elections. The NLD won Burma's last election in 1990, but the military ignored the results and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of two decades.