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Burma needs more than an icon

She’s beautiful, courageous, and no one can doubt her integrity.  Aung San Suu Kyi personifies the born leader.

From the moment she walked into the public arena in 1988, her people loved her.  First they loved her because she was the daughter of their assassinated hero, General Aung San.  Later they loved her because she stood against the military junta that was squeezing every freedom and right out of the lives of ordinary Burmese.  Then they grew to love her even more for her unstinting personal sacrifices by now transformed into a common mythology: her stubborn refusal of the junta’s offer of freedom so she could go to the side of her dying husband, in England.  She’s missed the growing up of her sons, the birth of her grandchildren, she’s missed the ceremony where her family accepted a Nobel Prize in her name, she’s missed the simple human interactions that every ordinary person takes for granted.

There’s no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi - the Lady - has given up a lot for her nation.

And now after more than a decade and a half spent within the crumbling walls of her lakeside villa, she’s out of house arrest and back in the political arena.  Her party, the National League for Democracy will be contesting all of the 48 seats available for the April 1st by election.  It’s inconceivable that she at least personally, won’t win.

Any recent visitor to Burma would be hard pressed to miss the general mood of optimism.  From the stand ups that Al Jazeera and BBC reporters are doing on the streets of Yangon and Naypitaw, to the use of real names and photos of people interviewed, to the images of the Lady, totally banned during the dark years of the 90’s - that adorn T-shirts, posters and mugs openly sold on the streets, the country is a long way from the furtive and restricted place it was even a couple of years ago.

Taxi drivers wave and gesticulate,  “yes, good place now - many changes.”  Civil society groups and pro-democracy politicians assert that they are “cautiously hopeful.”  Telephones with local SIM cards, unaffordable for the casual visitor a few years ago, are available as is free  WiFi in certain hotels.  The first uncensored film festival for 60 years was inaugurated on New Year’s Eve by the Lady herself and the theme was - what else - Freedom.

But.  And yes, there is indeed a but.  These are tiny baby steps on a long long road to any real freedom as we understand it.  Freedom of ordinary people to earn a decent living, freedom to be able to rely on a a regular supply of electricity, freedom to expect education for your children, affordable medical care for your old and sick.

And while we’re talking of the road to freedom, let’s start with the road itself - roads in Burma can be trying for anyone venturing out of the capital.  A 90 kilometre trip means five bumpy uncomfortable hours.  Night driving is done in almost complete darkness, as what little sporadic electricity there is usually comes in the form of a few dingy neon tubes in towns along the way with little in the way of street lighting outside the cities.

The country - one of the most resource rich in Asia - wears its poverty on its sleeve.  The ruling military designated less than 2% of its national budget to education and health combined, and indeed out of the city, what schools and hospitals there are, are in pitiful condition.  The average lower income wage hovers somewhere around 8-15 euros a month, and its not unusual to see taxi drivers who’ve tossed their engineering degrees because they can earn more driving a taxi than working as an engineer.  A university education does not guarantee a job, or indeed an education.  IT graduates from Mandalay University may well find that using the internet or sending an email is beyond the limits of what they’ve learned from their studies.

There’s a full blown conflict raging in Kachin state in the north, with tens of thousands of internally displaced people living in miserable conditions, uncertain when, if ever they can go back to the homes and fields they’ve fled.  40% of the country’s 50-60 million people come from dozens of ethnic groups who have been the butt of a successful divide and rule policy that was inherited from the British colonial rulers by the military, so there’s little consensus between the different groups, a web of ceasefires and broken treaties between ethnic groups and the army, and often the groups themselves are split into warring factions.  Add to this poisonous stew a steady stream of funding from smuggling, narcotics and illegal resource stripping and it gets even more murky.

60 years of military repression and mismanagement has bred a ‘do nothing without an order’ mentality and a singular lack of capacity in almost every area of governance.  English language ability is limited to those who were lucky enough to benefit from Burma’s splendid pre-1962 era education; the young people working the reception desks of even the larger hotels now bursting with foreign tourists can barely understand the basic communications of the “I want to change my room” variety.

There are, in short, a plethora of problems facing the country in its efforts to re-join a world that has long ago left it behind.  Catching up with even neighbouring Thailand with its constant supply of electricity, its miles of strip malls, its universal health care and education, will be a mammoth task.  And for such a task, Burma will need more than a beloved icon.  The country is in dire need of a functioning infrastructure, a civil service that has the know how and ability to administer good public policy, it’s three lost generations will have to be replaced by a  generation that can be offered a good education and employment prospects.

It’s a lot to put on the frail shoulders of one Lady, no matter how formidable her will and integrity.  Yet she must bear an even heavier burden;  that of the exaggerated expectations of her country and the world.  A great number of Burmese people love her with a passion that is bemusing to a westerner who would never think of using the words love and leader in the same sentence.  In 2008, the newly minted president Barack Obama entered office carrying just such a burden.  Being only human, it proved too much for him.  It is after all, too much for any one man to carry, and I fear it is too much even for a woman of the moral and personal stature of Aung San Suu Kyi.

1 Comment on “Burma needs more than an icon”

  1. #1 David Berridge
    on Jan 13th, 2012 at 5:24 am

    Firstly, Who says the Burma Watchers or Burma Watching is over? This is at such a negative situation that it will be something for where Burmese society can start from to recover. To make up for the damage and lost time sustained by Burma Aung San Suu Kyi can only create the basis of a democratic process to see the transition from a military to a civilian run society before lasting reforms can take hold for a number of years before they are realized in effect. The realities around this are constraining and time consuming beyond the career of a single politician. The framework has to be laid to create and sustain nationbuilders for a few generations to come, both within and outside the sphere of political life. The only good news is that the Burma Watchers have been spared and revitalized for the very least several decades. Aung San Suu Kyi will now fully come to realize what she has lost in the ability to serve her country in a time to reverse disaster.

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