Waiting for Our ‘Mandela Moment’

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Leaders come and go, but their courage, inspiration and integrity can resonate long after they leave office or this world. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela will always be remembered as one of humanity’s most extraordinary leaders.

Mandela was a man of many achievements, and as Desmond Tutu wrote in the Washington Post, “Never before in history was one human being so universally acknowledged in his lifetime as the embodiment of magnanimity and reconciliation as Nelson Mandela was.”

However, amid an outpouring of tributes today, Tutu pointed out a fact that Burmese would do well to take note of: Mandela was not a saint.

Tutu wrote: “His chief weakness was his steadfast loyalty to his organization and to his colleagues. He retained in his cabinet underperforming, frankly incompetent ministers who should have been dismissed. This tolerance of mediocrity arguably laid the seeds for greater levels of mediocrity and corruptibility that were to come.”

In Burma, we have our own dissident leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Now an elected parliamentarian working within a deeply flawed system, Suu Kyi on Friday paid tribute to Mandela as a “great human being who raised the standard of humanity” and inspired others to change the world.

While under house arrest, Suu Kyi was in the past compared to Mother Teresa or Mandela. Upon her release in 2010, some newspapers even predicted Burma was due for its own “Mandela moment.” But on a weekend when many are reflecting on an inspirational life that was, Burma is still waiting for that moment.

Like Mandela, Suu Kyi has been painted in the media as Burma’s revered, even saintly, pro-democracy icon.

But Suu Kyi insists she isn’t.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at

“Let me assure you, I’m no saint,” she told an audience in Sydney during her recent trip to Australia. “I look upon myself as a politician, not as an icon.”

This expectations management and the self-imposed “politician” label is understandable from a woman who has said openly that she wants to be president in 2015. But can an honest politician survive in a dirty game played by deceitful military interests and crony capitalists in Burma?

Burma’s military-drafted Constitution effectively disqualifies Suu Kyi from becoming president, owing to a clause which states that eligibility for the post precludes those who have a spouse or children who are foreign nationals. Suu Kyi’s late husband Michael Aris was British, as are her two sons.

The Constitution also requires the president to have military experience.

To change these provisions, she will need the approval of 75 percent of lawmakers in both houses of Parliament, a body where one quarter of MPs are unelected military representatives.

In her new role as an elected member of the opposition seeking to overhaul the Constitution, Suu Kyi has at times played politics. Like Mandela, pundits say the elected reincarnation of the former political prisoner has exposed her own weaknesses and flaws. Some are even saying she made a mistake in deciding to contest the country’s 2012 by-elections.

After meeting President Thein Sein for the first time in August 2011, Suu Kyi publicly vouched for him as “sincere” and set about advocating for the lifting of Western sanctions. The government, say critics and even some of her admirers, manipulated Suu Kyi to advance its goal of regaining legitimacy and convincing Western powers to lift sanctions.

Analysts say she only belatedly saw the deception and manipulation, eventually changing tack and adopting a critical tone in her public assessments of the Thein Sein administration. These days, relations between Suu Kyi and the president are said to be strained.

In dissident circles inside and outside of Burma, critical voices say that since her release from house arrest, Suu Kyi has neglected the activist network that has been built up over the last few decades to promote human rights and democracy in Burma. That network has also been a major source of support for Suu Kyi and the opposition movement.

Moreover, since failing to speak out against human rights abuses and conflict in ethnic regions, she has lost considerable support among Burma’s ethnic Kachin, who in the past supported her. This silence, coupled with her skirting the issue of violence targeting Muslims by the country’s majority Buddhists, has seen The Lady’s moral standing erode considerably since she took her seat in Parliament last year.

Like Mandela and his African National Congress party, Suu Kyi is the embodiment of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which she co-founded and guided to a sweeping victory in a 1990 general election—an outcome that was never honored. The ability of the parties of these two influential figures to function without them is still very much an open question.

With her eyes on the 2015 election, Suu Kyi is asking government leaders to amend the Constitution and has sought a dialogue involving the military, Parliament, the executive branch and the opposition NLD. The government has rejected that proposal.

No one doubts that the military still holds considerable sway over the affairs of the nation, and given this reality, Asia’s Nelson Mandela is playing a calculating game.

Of course, there are fundamental differences between the political trajectories of South Africa and Burma. Burma’s “democratization” has been a top-down process, limited and carefully engineered by the military. Former generals continue to hold power and much of the nation’s wealth.

By hook or by crook, the military and its crony associates will cling to that power for as long as they can.

The hope is that Suu Kyi can maintain popular support despite the setbacks. The Lady and her party have work to do in winning back many disgruntled and disillusioned dissidents and ethnic groups. And as important as rebuilding the old network, a new generation of leaders must be groomed for a day when our Mandela is no more.

Suu Kyi remains an inspiring figure and a dominant player in Burmese politics, but now in her late 60s, time is running out.

And still, everyone is waiting for Burma’s “Mandela moment.”


8 Responses to Waiting for Our ‘Mandela Moment’

  1. Excellent! To add to the article, the New York Times Editorial recently voiced its’ concerns and raised caution for the West and its’ Allies to be careful they are not enabling the transition from military dictatorship to military run crony capitalism in Burma. As long as Burma/Myanmar’s military insist on exclusive right to power and economics, and resist attempts for inclusivity, equality and sharing, the country’s hope for long lasting peace will always be a dream.

  2. Some of us felt that the media calling it a Mandela moment quite premature when she was released from house arrest, conveniently for the regime just missing the blatantly rigged 2010 elections which the NLD boycotted anyhow.

    Perhaps she did come under pressure from the West to change tack as Bertil Lintner suggested in Asia Times at the beginning of last year.

    If Burma joining the New World Order conveniently skipping the stage of a genuine regime change was what the West really wanted they have succeeded. No prizes then for guessing who the winners and losers are today.

    • Thank Moe Aung for his link to Bertil Lintner, writer in Asia times. After reading the opinion of Bertil Lintner, i am very more convinced that we all, like KIA need to abolish 2008 nargic military favored constitution first before saying anything about rule of law. Without abolishing 2008 nargic military favored fox constitution, we, Burmese will never see democracy in Burma forever. Now, Fox is creating more and more issues in Burma to make all Burmese to ignore his casual killing power in Burma. We, all must be united each other to demand to abolish their casual killing right(2008 Nargic constitution).

  3. Hey Daw Su Kyi, please use your freedom and influence to support true freedom fighters and human rights icons in Burma such as Naw Ohn Hla.
    When you were under house arrest (with servants and a cook) people all over the world used their freedom to support you as you asked them to.
    Now, I’m asking you to stand by the side of the displaced and dispossessed poor rural population in Burma and it’s your turn to deliver Lady!

  4. You have to separate great leaders, ordinary common leaders and corrupt leaders. Every leader in this world is ordinary mortal human being. But, what immortal is their idea, their believes and what they stand for. Why is that human being acknowledge that a person is a leader? If a leader is saying something and doing completely opposite, shall we call that person a leader and follow that person lead? The strong point and the weakness of a human being is that we are born with thinking power. We watch the action of the other human being and we judge them according to their actions. If Aung San Suu Kyi actions were agreeable with Democracy principle, I will support her in any way. But, her action is in line with Democracy principle? I understand that the lost of her stand for Democracy is a terrible blow to our country, but not to point out her mistakes is even bigger mistake for next generation. If we don’t do our duty now, the next generation will pay the price for our mistake. Aung San Suu Kyi is not more important than the whole Burma I as far as I am concern. It goes the same way to Burmese military. It is time we have to be truthful to ourselves.

  5. Time is running out.
    The days are counting.
    Looking back this has always been the case.
    It seemed impossible until you got it done.
    Don’t give up we have come so far.
    Things will fall into place.
    We will get the government we deserve.
    Let’s all look within ourselves.
    Miracles do happen.

  6. Suu Kyi is a sheep among a gang of wolves. Same supports which Mandela received from people of S Africa must be handed down to Suu Kyi by the people of Myanmar if they really want to live in the real democratic nation. Cunning current Myanmar regime is stumbling block toward democracy.

  7. It is not easy to break the military dominance in Burma (rubbish 2008 nargic constitution) because most are child soldiers with low education as well as are opportunistic in fox private army.

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