BANGKOK—For Aung San Suu Kyi the democracy activist, the 25-year struggle against Burma’s former military rulers was a largely black-and-white affair—a clear fight for freedom against one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.
But Suu Kyi the elected lawmaker is finding it a lot more difficult to pick her battles and is a lot more pragmatic when she does.
With the long-ruling junta gone and a reformist government in place, the political prisoner-turned-parliamentarian is now part of a nascent government dealing with a complex transition to democracy—even as she maintains her role as opposition leader.
This week, Suu Kyi moved to settle a dispute that has festered in the northwest for years: controversy over a military-backed copper mine in Letpadaung that has raised environmental concern and forced villagers from their land with little compensation.
The Nobel laureate made a two-day trip to the region to hear people’s grievances and try to help mediate a resolution. Hours before she arrived on Thursday, security forces launched a brutal crackdown on protesters that was the biggest of its kind since President Thein Sein took office last year.
Police used water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs to break up an 11-day occupation of the mine project. Protesters saw their makeshift shelters ablaze. A nurse at a Monywa hospital said 27 monks and one other person were admitted there to be treated for burns.
Addressing a crowd of more than 10,000 people in the nearby town of Monywa on Friday, Suu Kyi criticized security forces but said protesters may have to accept a compromise for the sake of national honor.
Burma’s former army junta made past deals without taking into account the wishes of the people, she said, but such commitments must be honored “so that the country’s image will not be hurt.”
A Chinese company is part-owner of the mine, and Beijing previously complained when Burma pulled back on the Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State in which China had an interest.
In other comments during her trip to Monywa, Suu Kyi said she would work for the country’s benefit but called on people to be “open-minded.”
“To walk the democratic system is a tough path,” she said. “It’s not straight.”
Though mine protesters may not be satisfied by those words, they at least know that they have Suu Kyi’s attention. The Nobel Peace laureate has gotten less involved in other conflicts.
Since taking her seat in the legislature in April, Suu Kyi has not set foot in northern Kachin State, where a war is raging between rebels and the army that has forced than 75,000 people to flee. She also has yet to visit the western state of Arakan, where two waves of sectarian violence between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has killed nearly 200 people and driven 110,000 people from their homes since June.
Suu Kyi has urged calm in both crises, but she not attempted to mediate, either.
“When entire communities of Rohingya and Muslims were wiped out in the state-backed ethnic cleansing in Rakhine [Arakan] State …. she didn’t even bother to tour the violence-struck” region, said Maung Zarni, a Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “Why not?”
The answer, it seems, is that Suu Kyi has evolved into a pragmatic politician, one who must pursue personal and party goals without upsetting her new relationship with Burma’s new power brokers, including Thein Sein. The army still wields enormous power in this Southeast Asian nation, and Suu Kyi has argued she must work with them on the path to national reconciliation.
One of the most prominent signs of the 67-year-old’s pragmatism has been her failure to speak out strongly against what rights groups say is the widespread repression of the Rohingya minority.
Although she has condemned the recent unrest, she has pointedly refused to take sides, saying violence has been committed by both Buddhists and Muslims.
The Rohingya, though, are among the most persecuted people in the world, largely denied citizenship by Burma and rejected by Bangladesh. They have borne the brunt of the recent violence, which Maung Zarni and others argue is part of an effort by ethnic Arakanese to drive Muslims out of the state. The vast majority of the 110,000 displaced are Rohingya, many of whom lost homes in arson attacks.
But Suu Kyi is well aware of her movement’s desire to sweep national elections in 2015. The Rohingya are a deeply unpopular cause, and standing up for them is politically risky in a predominantly Buddhist nation where they are widely denigrated as foreigners from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Burma for generations.
In April, Suu Kyi got a taste of the new political world she was entering shortly after her National League for Democracy party won almost all of the several dozen seats up for grabs in the country’s historic by-election.
Before taking their seats in the legislature, Suu Kyi’s party got embroiled in a major dispute over what they called the undemocratic wording of the oath of office. The party defiantly declared it would not take its seats until the phrasing was changed.
After a weeklong stalemate, Suu Kyi announced they would take the oath anyway and take their seats in a legislature where a quarter of seats are controlled by the army and most of the rest are occupied by retired military officers.
“Politics is an issue of give and take,” Suu Kyi said. “We are not giving up. We are just yielding to the aspirations of the people.”