Foreign Affairs

Aung San Suu Kyi looks ahead to a free Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi looks ahead to a free Burma
Aung San Suu Kyi is presented with the Congressional Gold Medal at the U.S. Capitol

WASHINGTON — After a flight across the ocean, a major ceremony on Capitol Hill, and a meeting with President Obama at the White House, anyone would be exhausted. But not Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party in Burma’s parliament and, for more than two decades, the voice of freedom in a nation under a heavy-handed military dictatorship.

In addressing a dinner in Washington Wednesday evening co-hosted by the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, the Nobel Laureate held the audience spellbound as she forcefully spelled out her vision of Burma as a free and democratic nation and one that embraced the free market. Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarks — delivered without a note in front of her — came hours after she received the Congressional Gold Medal on Capitol Hill and met with Obama at the White House.

One thing seemed clear: that at 67 and after many years under house arrest in Burma, Ms. Suu Kyi is indefatigable and, quite obviously, looking ahead to when her country has finally shaken off its military rulers and is a free democracy. Under those circumstances, few doubt that the politician known in Burma simply as “The Lady” would — if she remains healthy and vigorous — become its freely-elected president.

“Democracy is not perfect, but it is the best system we’ve been able to devise so far,” said Ms. Suu Kyi, recalling how her National League for Democracy (NLD) contested 44 out of 45 seats in truly free special elections for the Burmese parliament last April and won 43 (“and I was a bit annoyed we didn’t win all 44”). The elections in April were Burma’s first competitive races permitted by its military regime in 22 years. At that time, the NLD won 82 percent of the seats, the outcome was canceled, Ms. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, and many of her party’s candidates were jailed.

While obviously happy with the progress Burmese democracy has made, Ms. Suu Kyi also warned that “everything is reversible” and reminded her audience Burma was once a democracy before it came under military rule in 1962. The best way to get to a point when there is “no stopping or turning back” from a democratic system, she said, “is to keep people aware of their rights in a democracy and their opportunities in a democracy.”

In addressing her country’s economic needs, “The Lady” sounded much like a pro-free market and pro-opportunity candidate in a Western democracy. She said that the building of roads in her country “must come first,” because children “can’t go to school without good roads.” In a not-very-disguised whack at Burma’s strictly socialist economy, Ms. Suu Kyi added that “it’s not very easy to construct roads” since “this is usually done by the government.”

Investment in the digging and maintenance of roads will lead, she predicted, to a people who are “self-confident, self-reliant, and believe in themselves.” Failure to achieve this self-reliance could lead to a people who “won’t believe they can sustain the democratic system,” she warned. President Obama has said that U.S. businesses should be allowed to “responsibly” do business in Burma and the E.U. and Australia have eased sanctions against the military-run country.

With her party holding only 44 out of 651 seats in the Burmese parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi nonetheless brimmed with optimism about her country’s finally becoming a free society. She spoke of her work as chairman of the parliamentary Committee of Rule of Law and Tranquility, in which she deals with reforming a judiciary (“the biggest problem in Burma”) so that citizens feel confident the law will protect them. Although saying that the executive “is more opaque than the legislature” in Burma, the democracy champion pointed out that President and former military man Thein Sein has “initiated reform” and voiced confidence he will “take us forward to a genuinely democratic society.”

“The world has been kind to Burma,” Aung San Suu Kyi told a hushed audience, “and it wants a success story and a happy ending.”

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