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Suu Kyi's Political Skills Tested in Pre-election Showdown

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to journalists during a press conference at a parliament building, April 9, 2015 in Naypyidaw, Myanmar.
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to journalists during a press conference at a parliament building, April 9, 2015 in Naypyidaw, Myanmar.

With an historic general election just seven months away, Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is locked in a high-stakes showdown with a military-backed government she says isn't interested in reform.

Some of her supporters within Myanmar's pro-democracy movement have begun to question whether the country's most popular politician has the political ability to prevail.

They say she has already been outmaneuvered.

"At a grassroots level she is hugely popular. But people worry about her political maneuvering and strategy," said Aung Zaw, a former political exile and 1980s student activist who now edits Myanmar's leading independent news agency.

Aung Zaw and others, including some current student activists, say Suu Kyi made a critical mistake when she ran for parliament three years ago in a by-election, becoming a lawmaker in a system that remains far from fully democratic.

"She lent a whole undeserved legitimacy to the regime," Aung Zaw said.

Critics say Suu Kyi has received little in return for that move, which contributed to the United States and the European Union's suspending sanctions and burnished President Thein Sein's reformist image as "Myanmar's Gorbachev."

"She has been outsmarted to some extent," said Maung Moccy, a student activist, former political prisoner and a leader in the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. "... She hasn't got back in return anything that is worth what she gave," he added.

Others, though, express support.

Arakan National Party leader Aye Maung, who represents the nation's ethnic groups at reform talks between Myanmar's most powerful politicians, says Suu Kyi was pushing hard for the military-drafted constitution to be changed so that she could become eligible for the presidency after the election.

The charter effectively bars her from the top office.

"I think she's playing her game very smartly," he said, pointing to a round of talks due to take place on the constitution on Friday. Those talks include Suu Kyi, the president and the head of the armed forces.

"That's why today's talks came up very quickly. I wouldn't agree if someone said she's outmaneuvered," he added.

Suu Kyi shrugged off the criticism in an interview with Reuters on April 3.

When asked if contesting the 2012 by-election was a half measure that ultimately stymied reform, Suu Kyi replied, "No, I don't think so. It was a very good idea because we were able to move and operate as a political party."

Suu Kyi and 43 other members of the NLD entered parliament after winning the by-election by a landslide. Despite being a small opposition, they had been "quite effective" in forcing constitutional change onto the political agenda, she said.

Previously, talking about charter change "was regarded as a criminal offense," she said.

The constitution was written by the military, which ran the country for 49 years, and bars presidential candidates with a foreign spouse or child, a clause apparently written to exclude Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British.

The charter also reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for military delegates and guarantees the ministries of defense, home affairs and border affairs are headed by serving officers.

The military block has an effective veto over constitutional change, which requires more than 75 percent approval in parliament before being sent to a referendum.

Changing the charter would require the cooperation of both the military and Thein Sein, himself a former general whose quasi-civilian government replaced the military rule in 2011.

Suu Kyi said in the interview she no longer thought Thein Sein was sincere about reform and that his government was "not interested" in amending the constitution.

While there was still time for charter change, the NLD has not ruled out boycotting the election expected to take place in November, she said.

Zaw Htay, a senior official from the president's office, said he was surprised Suu Kyi was considering a boycott.

"I wonder if she just said so to pressure the government into amending the constitution," he said. "Personally, I don't think they will cancel or postpone [the election] no matter whether the NLD boycotts it or not."

The military was unavailable for comment.

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