FORT WAYNE – Government leaders are amazing. So often it seems they are the last to know what the people want.
– Aung San Suu Kyi
She has been called Southeast Asia’s Nelson Mandela and compared to Martin Luther King Jr.
She has won a slew of awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, for promoting freedom, liberty and human rights that she herself had in short supply.
She spent 15 years on house arrest for leading democracy activists in Myanmar, a military-ruled nation formerly known as Burma.
Now comes Act II.
Aung San Suu Kyi went from being a political prisoner in 2010 to being an elected member of Myanmar’s parliament in 2012. Her task is to help ensure the enactment of government, economic and social reforms begun by her captors, demanded by her constituents and expected from much of the rest of the world.
Her role has changed, and her reputation might. Already, she has taken heat for not being an advocate for the Muslim Rohingya minority who have been persecuted by the Buddhist majority. Suu Kyi herself had patience to spare, but will her countrymen?
How long will her political honeymoon last?
Last week, in a speech to the U.S. Congress, Suu Kyi, 67, referred to the difficult path of building a truly democratic society. Thiha Ba Kyi knows what she is talking about.
If we go in the right direction, the transition process will be much faster. My understanding is there is a long way to go, Thiha Ba Kyi said.
After all, he pointed out, We were ruled for 50 years by a military dictatorship.
Thiha Ba Kyi is part of Fort Wayne’s Burmese community. It is among the nation’s largest, with nearly 4,000 residents by U.S. Census Bureau estimates and perhaps twice that many, according to local tallies. Most are refugees brought to town since 1993 by Catholic Charities of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese
Thiha Ba Kyi was a dentist in a government hospital in Burma. He joined the 8888 Uprising led by Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy activists in 1988 and became a rebel and a refugee before coming to America in 1994. At 57, he is now an outreach specialist for health insurer Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
Suu Kyi’s election to Myanmar’s parliament was a turning point for my country, for her and her people, Thiha Ba Kyi said. Her National League for Democracy won 43 of 45 seats on the ballot for the 664-member legislature.
But now that Suu Kyi is a political leader in an ethnically diverse country where progress is sure to be gradual, she is in a very tight position, Thiha Ba Kyi said. It must be by the rule of law. As a politician, as a leader, she has to walk a very thin line.
Priscilla Clapp, the chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002, said Suu Kyi will need help.
She’s only one person, and it’s going to take a lot of other capable people to make it happen, Clapp said about government reforms. The NLD itself, her party, is still in the process of catching up with events and developing the capacity to handle their role as the single most significant opposition party in the country now that they’re in parliament.
Her role will be to try to unite all of the non-government parties into a voting bloc to increase their significance, Clapp said – and to lure factions away from the majority Union Solidarity and Development Party, which includes former military officials, ahead of 2015 elections.
Clapp referred to a speech last week at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington in which Suu Kyi said about her party: We’re finding our way. We are beginning to learn the art of compromise, give and take, the achievement of consensus.
She was trying to explain to an American audience that is used to seeing (Myanmar’s) government as the enemy that she’s part of it now, Clapp said. She’s trying to make it acceptable for activists in the U.S. to look kindly at these ex-generals and to think about how you reach reconciliation and make the country go, solidify the course of democracy in the country and help build stable institutions for democracy in the future.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the top-ranking Republican and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Suu Kyi during her visit to Capitol Hill last week. Earlier, Lugar was asked how her role and image might change now that she’s an elected official.
As an active member of parliament, it is inevitable that her actions will occasionally diminish some elements of support, Lugar said in an email. However, her personal sacrifice and steadfastness for freedom and democracy have earned her a permanent place in the heart of the Burmese people.
The ongoing mistreatment of the Chin, the Rohingya and other ethnic groups by the Burmese military will reveal the level of her effectiveness with Burma’s leaders, Lugar predicted.
In a telephone interview, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said Suu Kyi starts with a platform that most politicians never achieve, and that is (her constituents’) deep respect for the kind of person she is and for the kind of commitment she has made. She will have people listening to her all over the world.
Coats added: Of course, you get into political endeavors, there are always hard choices that have to be made and compromises that have to be made in order to achieve results. So, yes, it will be a different platform for her.
Democracy rarely makes a smooth arrival in countries accustomed to authoritarian rule, said Coats, a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.
We’re sure seeing that in North Africa and parts of the Middle East right now, Coats said. There are moves toward democracy, but it’s very messy, it’s very challenging.
Suu Kyi is in the middle of a 17-day U.S. trip that will take her to Fort Wayne, San Francisco and Los Angeles after visits to Washington, D.C., New York City and Louisville.
She will speak at 9 a.m. Tuesday at Memorial Coliseum, the same day that Myanmar President Thein Sein will arrive in New York for a session of the U.N. General Assembly. Two days later, Thein Sein is scheduled to deliver a speech to the U.N.
There have been concerns that Suu Kyi’s trip will upstage Thein Sein’s visit, possibly causing friction in their homeland.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to the United States will be met with extraordinary enthusiasm. This is news to no one, including President Thein Sein, Lugar said in an email.
The burden is on the Obama administration, and not Suu Kyi, in terms of the manner with which President Thein Sein will be received by the U.S. government during his visit, Lugar said. How will the administration utilize his time in the United States to acknowledge reforms and to encourage further steps?
Former U.S. diplomat Clapp said Suu Kyi was as responsible for making (democracy) happen as the generals who changed their minds because they are basically following her guidance. I think it’s only fair she should be here getting a share of the applause in the United States and at the U.N.
Clapp mentioned that Suu Kyi has had praise for Thein Sein in her speeches and has called for further easing of U.S. sanctions against Myanmar.
In a way, it has served as a platform for them working together, and that, I think, is good. Clapp said.
Suu Kyi also said at the Institute of Peace, I believe that (Thein Sein) is keen on democratic reforms, but how the executive goes about implementing these reforms is what we have to watch.
Thiha Ba Kyi said, What (Suu Kyi) is trying to tell us is we need to be trusting but cautious.
There was no local interest in having Thein Sein visit Fort Wayne, Thiha Ba Kyi said. Thein Sein, elected president in 2011, was a leader of the military regime until 2010.
As far as I know, we have no intention to invite him here, Thiha Ba Kyi said. We stay far from the military side; we are always very outspoken against the military government.
He was the prime minister at the time of atrocities, at the time of the 2007 monk revolution. He was one of the leaders who had the responsibility to crack down on monks and all the other student activists.
The Saffron Revolution – named for the robes worn by Buddhist monks – was among the largest anti-government protests of the past two decades. The military responded with violent force and arrests.
Would Thiha Ba Kyi consider returning to Burma?
So far I haven’t had a chance to go back and work with them, he said. But if I have a chance, if the opportunity comes up, I’m willing to go back to Burma and participate in the democratic process of my country.
He said he would like to apply the democratic principles and practices he has learned in the United States.
In my country since I was born, we have no chance to talk openly, he said. We cannot criticize the policies of the government. We cannot criticize, openly, the authority. In the United States, we learned that even the president of the United States gets criticized by the opposition side.
We are trying to solve problems, find a better way, create better solutions.