A New Role for Aung San Suu Kyi?

Looking across the mighty Hlaing River, one does not need to know much of Burmese history to realize that Rangoon was once a culturally rich city. But in 2005, the Burmese regime led by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) famously decided to abandon the beautifully crafted capital city to the greenfield site in Naypyidaw as the country's new government center.

Today the old power center is fast declining into a state of decay. Historical monuments urgently need restoration. Some of the damaged buildings caused by Cyclone Nargis in 2007 are still left unattended. Rangoon's physical degeneration has partly been exacerbated by the long years of authoritarianism that Burma has endured since the military took over and pushed out civilian rule in 1962. The dilapidated old capital has emerged as a symbol of political turmoil: falling, frustrating and hopeless.

When the SPDC, under the leadership of the military strongman Senior General Than Shwe, declared that it would hold general elections in 2010 for the first time in 20 years, some of the Rangoon residents were delighted, albeit skeptical. Although a date has not been announced for the election, in accordance to a new constitution approved in a referendum in 2006, observers believe it will be held on Oct. 10, considered an auspicious date by the Burmese generals.

Not everyone really understood how the upcoming election would reinstall the lost concept of democracy. But all were dreaming that some changes would take place under a new democratic rule. However, these dreams have been demolished following the recent announcement that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), would not be allowed to participate in the election.

Suu Kyi has been banned from membership of the NLD on the pretext of her criminal conviction after a mentally unstable American, John Yettaw, swam uninvited into her lake house residence. The ban on her candidacy is graphic evidence that she remains as strong a force in the country as she was in May of 1990, when the NLD convincingly won the elections, taking 392 of the 492 seats in the legislature and stunning the military government.

The NLD immediately retaliated against the ban on Suu Kyi's candidacy, pledging to boycott the election, thus putting into question the legitimacy of whatever new government is elected. Many Western governments and the United Nations have condemned the Burmese military regime for purposefully ridding Suu Kyi of the election race. From the junta's perspective, it is understandable why Suu Kyi must be barred. After all, this is a military-led transition. The military already has in its mind how the post-SPDC Burma will look like. Certainly, Suu Kyi will not be a part of it.

At a gathering of leading scholars of Burma at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore on April 5, nobody seemed to be able to predict Suu Ky's future role now that both she and her party will not be contesting in the election. But what is predictable is that the election will go on, that Western governments will reject the legitimacy of whoever will come to power and that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will go along with the new administration without asking too many questions.

I just returned from Rangoon last week. While there, I had extensive discussions with Burma's leading political activists. Their view of politics was refreshing. Most of them agreed that it is now time for Suu Kyi to tone down her political demands and focus more on the economic issues. In this way, she could retain the title of champion of the Burmese people without having to directly participate in politics. There would be no obstacle for her to do so, the activists believe, saying she would be perceived less as a threat to the future regime.

Indeed, economic issues are important. The government's patent inability to deal with the wellbeing of the people was no more clearly demonstrated than by Nargis, the worst natural disaster in Burma's recorded history, which left at least 150,000 people dead and probably more, since the government stopped counting the dead to minimize the political fallout. After first refusing to allow international aid efforts, the suspicious military government only allowed a trickle of aid to enter the country and left the impoverished Burmese to fend for themselves while they sat in Naypyidaw.

Thus, the economic issues are so important that the Burmese would be willing to vote for anyone who could guarantee them a job opportunity, access to clean water, the non-interruption of electricity, and other basic necessities in life. They do not care much about who will become the next prime minister. What they care most is where the next meal can be found.

In Rangoon, still the country's financial hub, the economic disparity among the people is stark. Starbucks-like coffee shops are mushrooming in which a cup of cappuccino is worth a month salary for a road-side construction worker. In the meantime, public buses are ancient and the service is irregular. They run side-by-side with limousines owned by children of the military supremos.

Suu Kyi and the NLD could work on these bread-and-butter issues to remain in the political limelight, the Burmese activists say, rather than to engage in a war of words with the SPDC. The other obvious benefit for her is that this will open up a channel of communication between her party and the many ethnic minorities who, like the Rangoon residents, are suffering from the widening economic gap. These minorities groups, also like other Rangoon residents, have only come to know Suu Kyi as a political figure, who, after all these years, has been incapable of changing the military's mindset.

Economic prosperity is normally a prerequisite to building a politically conscious society. If Suu Kyi would seriously campaign for making a better life for every Burmese, she would undoubtedly become a clear winner in Burma's political deadlock despite being banned from the election.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, the author of A Plastic Nation: The Curse of Thainess in Thai-Burmese Relations (2005), is a Fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.