Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has returned to her job as leader of Myanmar’s opposition after her second international lap of honor. Her first was to Europe in June when she finally received her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. Her second was to Washington in September when she received a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor the U.S. Congress can bestow. Now she’s back in Myanmar where, to use her own words, “so many hills remain to be climbed, chasms to be bridged, obstacles to be breached.”
While Aung San Suu Kyi was describing the challenges facing Myanmar, she may just as easily have been referring to herself. Sure, Aung San Suu Kyi’s stature is as unassailable in Myanmar as it is abroad—she is an icon in her own country, even if she dislikes being called one. But she still confronts many political challenges. Over the next two and a half years, she must work with President Thein Sein to cement democracy in Myanmar, consolidate her own political standing, and lead her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to victory in the 2015 elections.
But she cannot assume that her overwhelming popularity in Myanmar today will remain intact over the next few years. And the president, known for his honesty and low-key style, is emerging as a formidable political force in his own right, leaving Aung San Suu Kyi’s political future far from assured. If Aung San Suu Kyi seeks the presidency in 2015—and she has been candid about her presidential aspirations—she has her work cut out for her.
This means that Aung San Suu Kyi cannot rest on her laurels and must keep leading the drive for change in Myanmar. One of her immediate priorities needs to be transforming the NLD from a party of opposition to a credible, national force with proven credentials for wielding power. This can be done in three ways.
First, she will need to expand the party’s reach to compete effectively with Myanmar’s ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. In the by-elections in April, the NLD contested 44 of 45 seats (and won 43 of them). In the 2015 elections, it will need to contest all 498 parliamentary seats nationwide. This requires building the party’s infrastructure and its political base across the country without diluting its democratic ideals and core principles—achieving this in only two years is impossible without a combination of strong management and clear-eyed political leadership.
Second, she needs to make the NLD’s membership and leadership more reflective of the broad electorate. The plan is to more than double the party’s membership from 400,000 to over a million, but she will need to emphasize the recruitment of youth and women into the ranks. (After all, over half of the voting-age population will be women and a third will be between the ages of eighteen and thirty at the time of the elections.)
And third, the party needs to become an institution that is bigger than just its leader. Aung San Suu Kyi will be seventy when the elections are held and (heartless as it may seem to consider) neither her health nor her safety should be taken for granted. It is true that power in Myanmar tends to be personalized—and personalities, not parties, command allegiance. But this should change. The NLD has much to gain from grooming its next generation of leaders and building their political visibility. Aung San Suu Kyi’s long shadow should not stifle their emergence to ensure that they are well positioned to take the reins from her in due course and continue her remarkable legacy.
But building the NLD’s leadership and membership is only part of the challenge. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party need to develop clear positions on a range of urgent policy issues. The NLD must determine how to pace and sequence Myanmar’s economic liberalization, transform ceasefire agreements with ethnic minorities into a long-term political framework, identify a permanent solution to the deep-rooted tensions between the Rohingyas (a Muslim ethnic group that is not recognized by the government as citizens) and ethnic Buddhists in Rakhine State, and lay the institutional foundations for democracy and good governance. The party also needs to become more open to new ideas from outside the party, especially from Myanmar’s skilled diaspora.
Additionally, Aung San Suu Kyi and her inner circle must sufficiently differentiate their policies from those of the ruling party. This will not be easy. President Thein Sein has shown considerable initiative, surprising everyone with his reformist instincts and gaining greater stature within Myanmar and abroad. He has presided over a remarkable transition from military to civilian rule, released political prisoners, conducted fair and peaceful by-elections, granted new freedoms to the media, allowed unions to assert their collective bargaining rights, approved rights (within limits) to peaceful assembly and expression, and patiently followed the rule of law when dealing with a resurgent parliament that is flexing its muscles and challenging the presidency.
Thein Sein was recently re-elected as the leader of the ruling party and may decide to seek a second term as president in 2015. But even if he decides not to run, his impressive legacy could be bequeathed to many possible successors, particularly Thura Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of parliament and party’s standard-bearer for further reform. Shwe Mann has been part of the triumvirate at the helm of the country’s affairs—together with the president and Aung San Suu Kyi—and a key reformist force within the ruling party.
Unlike the president and the ruling party, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have to work hard to gain the military’s support and neutralize any possible backlash against the country’s nascent political and economic reforms. Myanmar’s military may have handed over the reins of government to a civilian administration, but it still dominates the country and sees itself as indispensable for the country’s unity, stability, and independence.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been careful thus far to maintain good relations, reminding the military that her father was the founder of the Burmese army. She will, however, also need to reassure military leaders that an NLD victory will not trigger commissions of inquiry into human rights violations or resource cutbacks that undermine the military’s influence. And the military also wants guarantees that it will retain its representation in parliament (currently 25 percent of the lower house) and the enormous powers given to the National Defense and Security Council during “a state of emergency.”
Finally, there is one last thing that Aung San Suu Kyi will need in order to run for president: a change to the constitution. The 2008 constitution forbids anyone from becoming president who has children that are citizens of a foreign country (in Aung San Suu Kyi’s case, her children are citizens of the United Kingdom). She has acknowledged that the constitution will need to be amended not just for her, but “for the country.” Orchestrating this will be a real challenge and she will need to garner broad support from all political parties and the military.
Indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi has large hills to climb, chasms to bridge, and obstacles to breach. Her ability to tackle these priorities will impact the 2015 elections and beyond.