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Aung San Suu Kyi Isn't Under House Arrest, but She Shouldn't Press Her Luck

Aung San Suu Kyi could be forgiven for looking at the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and wondering if she could spark the same sort of upheaval in her own homeland, a country dominated by a military regime for the past four decades. After all, the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate retains incomparable popular support, a point that all of her public appearances since her release from house arrest last November have served to underscore. Her recent trips outside Rangoon have consistently drawn large crowds: In July, when she appeared at the historic site of Bagan, hundreds of ordinary Burmese came out simply for the chance to see and touch a living political hero.

But if the sixty-six year old Suu Kyi feels inclined to assume a revolutionary role, she should reconsider. Rather than look to the revolutions in the Middle East for inspiration, she should leverage her own family history and follow in the footsteps of her father, the canny independence leader Aung San. Though Suu Kyi enjoys enormous popularity, she is still dealing with a highly recalcitrant government. If she wants to make this last act on the public stage count—and wants to survive it intact—she should assume a posture of pragmatism toward the Burmese government, playing a conciliatory, rather than strictly adversarial, role.

Indeed, Suu Kyi should recognize that the current Burmese government is not exactly the same one she encountered when she was arrested years ago. Where previously, the regime used force to break up any efforts by Suu Kyi to travel—even going so far as to attack her motorcade in 2003 when she visited the town of Depayin, killing 70 of her colleagues—now it is allowing her to travel unimpeded, so far.

Some suggest that the government’s gestures toward Suu Kyi are expressions of confidence, signs that the government believes it enjoys renewed legitimacy ever since last year’s highly-flawed elections, which brought a nominally civilian parliament to power but kept the army, behind the scenes, in control of the state. (Military-related parties control nearly all the seats in the new legislature.) Some in the government now even seem willing to admit errors that have been committed over the past several decades. The new president, Thein Sein, a former senior military officer, has shown signs of potentially being a reformer, giving speeches that invite exiled Burmese to return home and vowing that the country will embrace a more democratic political system.  

Some of the government’s changes seem designed to signal rapprochement specifically with Suu Kyi herself. There was her release from house arrest, of course. But the regime has also appointed an ally of hers to a position as a senior advisor to Thein Sein. And government officials invited Suu Kyi to attend the annual national ceremony of Martyrs’ Day on July 19, which commemorates the assassination of the leaders of Burma’s independence movement. 

Suu Kyi has been correct in sensing that this new atmosphere offers her an opportunity, and it’s wise for her to continue traveling the country, and doing the work to rebuild her party, which has been decimated by arrests and age, though it remains popular. But she should be wary of the many younger Burmese democracy activists who, since she gained her freedom, have been urging her to be more confrontational with the new civilian government and to reveal its hypocrisies. Despite their best intentions, these dissenters—some of whom split from her party last year—are setting their hero up for a terrible fall.

Indeed, Suu Kyi would be mistaken to overestimate the room she has been given to maneuver: Despite the regime’s seeming confidence, its velvet glove still masks an iron fist. The military—one of the most brutal in the world—still dominates the government, the economy, and all social welfare, after all. It’s not an accident that Suu Kyi is still officially banned from participating in politics, nor that state media recently warned her to avoid political activities. By mounting a direct opposition to the regime, Suu Kyi may wind up only getting herself locked up again, or worse—a result that would be of little benefit to Burma’s suffering people.

Suu Kyi should instead take a lesson from the pragmatism of her late father. Though General Aung San had a fierce desire to found an independent Burma, he was always willing to compromise and cut deals to that end. During World War II, he worked together first with the invading Japanese forces, then with the Allies who came afterward. He also cooperated with the ethnic minority armies threatening to tear the country apart. 

Like her father, Suu Kyi could become a leader of national unity. She should focus on resolving the ethnic turmoil that again threatens Burma’s very existence. The government’s recent decision to reject fragile cease-fires with numerous armed ethnic militias has raised the prospect of an all-out civil war in the country’s north and northeastern regions. Already, in recent months fighting has flared up between the national military and the Karen Independence Army, one of the major ethnic militias, which together with other insurgents has committed to an extended fight. If the largest of the ethnic militias—the United Wa State Army, which boasts some 30,000 men and modern weaponry funded by its alleged narcotrafficking—were to join this civil war, it could mean years of conflict that destabilizes the entire region.

Respected as she is by the ethnic militias, Suu Kyi could play a mediating role between the ethnic minorities and the central government. That would only burnish her status as an icon of democracy throughout the country and lend her more political legitimacy as a political leader. Fortunately, Suu Kyi seems to have already taken some steps in this direction. In July she wrote a letter to President Thein Sein stating her readiness to help with efforts toward ceasefire negotiations with the country’s ethnic armed groups.

There are other political roles that Suu Kyi could adopt that would avoid her having to directly confront the military government. She could work with the government to develop new economic policies, including reversals of some of the government’s recent  privatizations, which have disastrously handed major state assts to regime cronies. She could also become a leader on environmental issues, advocating for some protection of rural Burma’s fragile natural environment. Right now, mining, logging, and other activities in Burma, done with minimal oversight, are laying waste to the country.

Of course, being above the fray does not mean avoiding difficult choices. Despite her moral power, Suu Kyi still faces a tough and unrelenting military. Suu Kyi and her party may need to once and for all let go of their anger over the 1990 election, which they won decisively and then saw the results essentially annulled by the military regime. After all, for what may be her last act, Suu Kyi needs to spend the time on stage, not back under arrest.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Hunter Marston is a MA candidate in Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies.