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A Visit With Aung San Suu Kyi

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The Aspen Institute, through its Global Alliance Program under Mickey Bergman, is co-sponsoring a delegation to Myanmar over nine days in late April and early May. The purpose of the trip is to foster social entrepreneurship to address some of the country's most critical needs, including education, clean water, nutrition, and sustainable energy.

On April 29, our second day in the country, some members of the delegation were invited to spend an hour with Aung San Suu Kyi in her Yangon residence. Suu Kyi is every bit as articulate, passionate and compelling as her iconic global reputation and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize would suggest. (And thousands of Aspen Seminar alumni will know her through her 1994 address in Manila on Empowerment of a Culture of Peace and Development, a frequent text in our Aspen Seminar).

We met in the lakeside house she had been kept in house arrest for almost fifteen of the twenty-one years between 1989 and her most recent release on November 13, 2010. She sat with us in her small living room under a large portrait of her father, Aung San, a national hero who negotiated Burma's independence from the British Empire in 1947 and is considered to be the father of modern-day Burma, now of course known as Myanmar.

The eyes of the world have been on Myanmar since the 2010 general election. Decades of military dictatorship and isolation, broken first but only tentatively in 2003 with the government's proposal of a "Roadmap to Democracy", had by then transformed what was once the richest country in southeast asia into one of the poorest. It was shortly after the elections that U.S. and EU sanctions were eased, and when Suu Kyi, known to all in Myanmar as "The Lady," was released. Later, she was given limited freedom of movement internationally, and allowed to campaign politically. And of course, with much ceremony, Myanmar and Suu Kyi were visited by Secretary Clinton in 2011 and 2012, and by President Obama in 2012, each expressing hope that democratization would take firm root and expand. (Myanmar people still see relatively few Americans. Travel there is difficult and tourism barely developed -- it seems another planet from neighboring Thailand. When someone learns you are American, they invariably smile and say "Obama").

Her message to us was firm. She said yes, do focus on the opportunities afforded by reform, asking the investors in our group to focus on the provision of critically needed jobs for young people, and to address the problems that trap so much of the population in poverty, poor education, and ill health. But she also said not to ignore the remaining challenges; she asserted they were still "enormous." She urged us not to be "fooled" by changes she called "superficial," the bustle everywhere evident, the presence of new western logos like Coca-Cola's, and ubiquitous billboards announcing the arrival of consumer mobile telephony. (But she derided the new capital city of Naypyidaw -- with Mandalay, another city on the delegation's itinerary -- as "ridiculous," created where no city had been, with 20 lane highways, monstrous buildings, no cars and few people). And she warned investors to be cautious indeed before making any large commitments to the country. The times she said were precarious, and could "tip either way."

She told us bluntly that the political, social and economic reform had "stopped," and indeed argued that all that had occurred until now, including elections, had been part of a "seven point plan" by the former military government that was only intended to move the country enough to allow foreign investment but not too far to allow the army to lose effective control. She said the current government had no intention of continuing the reforms except at the slowest possible pace consistent with its and the military's preservation of privilege and control.

She did though offer some "good news" for would-be investors in our delegation: that indications of "which way the country would turn would be clear within months" -- pointing especially to proposals for constitutional reform, including the one that would remove the bar from her from running for President because she has British children (her late husband was British) -- a provision in the constitution written precisely with her in mind. She also complained of the policy that bars parliamentary candidates from campaigning outside their own constituencies, aimed at her as well, and the great influence they feared she could have on voters throughout the nation.

Suu Kyi also spoke of the sectarian conflict (some aid groups are now calling it genocide) occurring in the western region of the country against Muslims. President Obama had spoken of his great concern about Myammar's treatment of its Muslim minority just two days before while in Malaysia. She said not to expect meaningful action from the government. Indeed, she said the government of the predominantly Buddhist country was using the conflict for its electoral advantage to present the opposition party she leads as one that "loves Muslims." We perhaps should have pushed her more on this issue as some commentators have criticized her for not doing as much as she could be herself.

The circumstances involving the Rohingya in particular, especially in the State of Rakhine where most of the Muslim Rohingya minority live, threaten what little progress the country has made. The issues are complex. The US Ambassador to Myanmar had told us the day before that even the word Rohingya is itself "toxic" in Myanmar. Many Burmese consider and call these people "Bangladeshi," and illegal entrants in their country, despite many having lived there for generations. Just a month before our arrival, the NGO Doctors Without Borders -- which had been providing medical care to the Rohingya for 22 years -- were evicted by the government, first from all of Myanmar and then just from Rakhine State, alleging that they were "biased" toward the Rohingya.