Aung San Suu Kyi

Curtain up

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2011, 12:00am


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A typically dark piece of political humour doing the rounds of Yangon's tea shops suggests all Myanmar's generals have to do to finally neutralise the aura of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is to make her electricity minister should she enter parliament after upcoming by-elections. The rolling blackouts and power surges that affect the former capital daily would see her reputation shot within six months, it goes.

As surreal as the joke may be - conjuring an image of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate running a decrepit power grid - it does, like the best political humour, have a grain of truth.

As she embraces the fledgling reforms of the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein, a former general in the country's feared junta, Suu Kyi is embarking on a vast political challenge.

After long years of isolation under house arrest that have, ironically, only buttressed her force as a moral leader, Suu Kyi must now act as a political leader and strategist, too. At 66, she faces the task of not just rebuilding the tattered remnants of her long-persecuted National League for Democracy (NLD), but also manoeuvring through the Byzantine corridors of the new capital, Naypyidaw. Some of her supporters fear she may yet be set up or marginalised as she enters the system - fears Suu Kyi has acknowledged, even as her decision to stand effectively overturns the NLD's two-decade claim for their 1990 election win to be honoured.

Beyond such fears are questions once uttered widely across East Asia. Does she live in the real world? Could she really run the country? Such questions have faded over the years as Myanmar's generals have impoverished a naturally rich country through severe malfeasance and maladministration. She certainly couldn't do any worse, you might say.

It will also be a challenge for the region. If - and it is obviously a large if - reforms gradually continue and allow her an extended and meaningful role, it is going to be fascinating to watch her occupy a virtually unique political space in the region as a deeply principled voice for political freedom, and one that cannot be easily dismissed or silenced.

The region has become used to Suu Kyi the symbolic dissident, largely silenced by years of house arrest. Now she has a voice again, at least some governments - even those who had pushed for her release - may suddenly be less interested in what she has to say on the regional stage.

She is already showing she can deploy warmth and diplomacy to support, rather than compromise, her core values. She routinely offers rhetorical olive branches to China and India, her nation's giant and rival neighbours, as she courts old friends in the West.

Hong Kong got a glimpse of these skills earlier this year when she spoke to a packed hall at the University of Hong Kong, moving some in the audience to tears, as she showed deep knowledge of Hong Kong and the importance of its universities, her Buddhist faith and her desire to, one day, talk to mainland students in Beijing.

But the real work is only just beginning. As Suu Kyi herself has noted, recent events have simply been the start of a very long road.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.