Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In Burma, ‘Suu Kyi cult’ grows more visible as opposition leader runs for office

Khin Maung Win/AP - If Aung Sun Suu Kyi wins a seat in the 440-seat lower house in April, she will gain a platform to influence legislators in a parliament that has demonstrated reformist credentials.
Just 14 months ago, the driver — whose discount equals three days’ wages at a local garment sweatshop — would have been afraid to say her name out loud, let alone drive to her house.
In recent months, a stream of prominent visitors — including Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. secretary of state, and George Soros, the billionaire investor — has flowed to No. 54 University Avenue for a “photo op” with Suu Kyi. Since she recently announced her first run for political office, however, many would-be visitors have been politely turned away.
“It’s probably easier to get in to see Madonna,” says one diplomat.
In the eyes of many supporters, a place in Burma’s 440-seat lower house of parliament will be the vital springboard for Suu Kyi to eventually lead the country. If, as expected, she wins a seat in April, she will gain a platform to influence legislators in a parliament that has demonstrated reformist credentials.
“President Thein Sein and his government have clearly decided they’d rather have her inside their tent than out,” says one Western diplomat.
Since August, the nominally civilian government of Thein Sein, a former general, has rapidly rolled out reforms. It has abolished media censorship, revamped labor laws and held talks with ethnic rebel groups, securing a landmark cease-fire with the Karen National Union last week.
But the move that has attracted the most international attention — prompting the United States to normalize diplomatic ties — was the release Friday of hundreds of political prisoners.
“For the first time in decades, people believe change is on the way,” says Susanne Kempel, a consultant to international organizations who operates in Burma, also known as Myanmar. “Of course, there are fears it could all be taken away again, but there’s a sense that, this time, change is real.”
Not everyone believes Burma’s new rush for democratization is irreversible. Although some newly freed detainees are considering entering politics, others remain wary.
“They still have characteristics of the dictatorship. What kind of a democracy is this?” asks Ashin Gambira, an activist monk released from jail Friday, pointing out that some political detainees remain imprisoned and that charges are yet to be lifted on those freed.
Others, including Khin Zaw Win, a political activist who was previously detained for 11 years, are more optimistic. “If I talked like this before, I would have to look over my shoulder,” he says. “There are still hard-liners in government, but I feel a tipping point has been reached.”
In Kawhmu, a group of poor villages about 30 miles south of Rangoon where Suu Kyi will stand for election, that “tipping point” is still distant. Until recently, locals had little hope for their district, among the areas worst hit by Cyclone Nargis, which killed 140,000 people in 2008.
In Burma, there are many areas like Kawhmu. Meanwhile, grand villas in Rangoon can now sell for up to $10 million. With abundant natural resources controlled for decades by the military, wealth has been confined to an elite minority.
However, recent economic reforms, including cuts in income and trade taxes and foreign-exchange liberalization, are spurring a growing middle-class — although average daily wages are between 3,000 and 4,000 kyat ($3.50 and $4.60).
Sean Turnell, an expert on Burma’s economy at Australia’s Macquarie University, says changes will trickle down but warns it will take time. Some economists estimate growth could reach 5.5 percent, after hitting 3.2 percent last year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Nationally, the challenges of tackling rural — as well as urban — poverty become more daunting by the day. Although Suu Kyi had only visited Kawhmu three times before announcing her intention to run, many locals hoping to rebuild their lives after Nargis already see her as their “savior.”
“The main thing she has already brought to the district is hope — and that is vital,” says U Thein Htum, a local spokesman for the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party.
Over sweet tea at the party’s bamboo-hut local headquarters, 20 or so NLD organizers — mostly men clad in traditional “longyi” sarongs — discuss the poll. “How can we trust this government? Nothing will change,” says one man angrily.
His colleagues mostly disagree. Shwe Than, an NLD member from Rangoon, later explains: “All the people trust her. Perhaps some expect too much, but we know she will make a difference, because she will give them a voice in parliament . . . and one day she will get full power.”
At this point, people think of Suu Kyi as a demi-god, says Khin Maung Swe, a founder of the National Democratic Force, the largest opposition party after the NLD. “But once she’s in parliament, and maybe even in cabinet, it may be good for the country.”
But, he cautions, “this is not a one-woman democracy. There are many voices.”
This piece originally appeared in the Financial Times.

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