/ 20 June 2012

Suu Kyi ready to lead Burma to democracy

Burma democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi smiles during her visit to the BBC.
Burma democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi smiles during her visit to the BBC.

This is the strongest signal yet that she sees herself as someone who could lead her country one day.

Burma’s then-ruling junta freed the Oxford-educated Nobel Peace Prize laureate from house arrest in 2010, ushering in a period of reform and enabling her to travel abroad for the first time in decades.

Asked by the BBC if she was prepared to lead her people, given the prospect of national elections in 2015, Suu Kyi replied: “If I can lead them in the right way, yes.”

Even so, any bid for Burma’s presidency looks unlikely, since it would require changing a junta-drafted constitution designed to protect the country’s still-powerful military.

Now a symbol of non-violent political resistance, Suu Kyi (67) left her two sons and husband in Britain in 1988 to nurse her dying mother in Burma, where she was swept up in pro-democracy protests that the military brutally crushed.

She languished under house arrest for much of the next two decades, unable to spend much time with her sons or be with her husband before he died of cancer in 1999.

She was released in November 2010 after an election that installed President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government – ending nearly 50 years of military rule – which has launched a series of dramatic reforms.

Second wave of reforms
These included holding by-elections in April in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 43 seats in Burma’s fledgling Parliament.

While Thein Sein, a former general, announced on Tuesday a “second wave” of reforms, Suu Kyi was hailed as a hero on her visit in Britain as part of a broader European tour.

Given star treatment on her 67th birthday on Tuesday, she received a standing ovation when she addressed a packed auditorium at the London School of Economics at the start of her emotional comeback to Britain.

“It’s all of you and people like you that have given me the strength to continue,” she said, to whoops and cheers from the audience. “And I suppose I do have a stubborn streak in me.”

She then travelled to the city of Oxford, where she read politics, philosophy and economics in the 1960s and lived for many years with her husband, the late academic Michael Aris, and her two sons: Kim (35) and Alexander (39).

“Welcome back! Welcome back!” chanted a crowd of about 200 activists and residents who gathered in central Oxford for a glimpse of Suu Kyi as her motorcade glided through the medieval alleys of Britain’s oldest university town.

‘Sincere heart’
Peter Khin Tun (54) a doctor who fled Burma 18 years ago, said: “We are very proud of her. I feel very close to her. That’s why I came here. She is true to herself. Nowadays it’s very rare to see someone with a sincere heart.”

While in Oxford, Suu Kyi was expected to meet her sons and other family members, some of whom she had never met, in a private reunion – a moment certain to be both joyful and painful for a woman who refused to leave Burma for decades for fear that its military leaders would not let her back in.

“I missed them [her sons], and they missed me, but as I said, when I looked at the lives of my colleagues it was much worse,” she told Britain’s Sky News.

“I don’t justify it, I think that everybody must accept responsibility for what they do. I accept responsibility for what I did and what I am, and so must my sons.”

Burma’s Constitution, which was ratified after a heavily rigged referendum in 2008, reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for military personnel chosen by the armed forces chief.

It also disqualifies presidential candidates with spouses or children who are citizens of a foreign country. Alexander and Kim became British after the military junta stripped them of Burma citizenship in 1989.

‘Positive direction’
Constitutional amendments require the support of 75% of Parliament, including at least some military delegates, which even Suu Kyi will struggle to get.

“Do we think it can be amended? Yes, we think so, because we think that it’s possible to work together with the military to make them understand why we think that this Constitution will not move us in a positive direction,” she said in London.

Suu Kyi’s age – she will be 70 in 2015 – and uncertain health might also make a leadership bid untenable. She collapsed with exhaustion at least twice during her election campaign in March, and was sick again while touring Europe.

On Wednesday, she was due to be presented with an honorary degree by Oxford University and to address the Oxford Union debating society. On Thursday, she is due back in London to address both houses of Parliament, a rare honour.

Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, the assassinated leader of Burma’s struggle for independence from British rule.

In her London speech, Suu Kyi spoke about the importance of the rule of law in Burma.

“The reason why I’ve emphasised the rule of law so much in my political work is because this is what we all need if we are to really proceed towards democracy,” said Suu Kyi, who was sworn into Burma’s Parliament last month.

“Unless people see that justice is done and seen to be done, we cannot believe in genuine reform.” – Reuters