Patrick Brown: Aung San Suu Kyi and the two faces of Burma

Burma's military regime has been talking democracy and welcoming Western investment while still taking harsh action against ethnic minorities and playing footsie with China. Where does the country's democratic icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, stand on all this, Patrick Brown asks.

As revolutions pick up steam, they normally also pick up a nickname.

Months and seasons have been popular. (October and Spring come to mind.) Many have been named after the colours of the protest banners washing through the streets, while the Czechs, with typically stylish quirkiness, named theirs after velvet, for its relative smoothness.

Meanwhile, the Burmese, defying as usual easy characterization, have been engaged in a nameless struggle against their rulers for seven decades and counting. Call it the Slow Revolution.

The difficulty of toppling a regime in slow motion was underlined with cool understatement by Aung San Suu Kyi during Barack Obama's historic visit to Rangoon in November.

"We have to be very careful that we're not lured by the mirage of success," she said.

On some issues, it sometimes seems that the revolution is even going backwards, as with the news last week that Burma's military regime, while welcoming new foreign investment on the one hand, has also been attacking ethnic rebels in the north from the air.

The two faces of Burma are also apparent in the confusion over what to call the place.

President Obama used both Myanmar, imposed by the military regime, and Burma, the historical name preferred by the opposition, before settling on "This country" to avoid giving offence to either side.

Some Burmese are beginning to wonder whether the term "mirage of success" might also be applied to Aung San Suu Kyi herself in the two years since she was freed from house arrest.

For many opposition figures, the transition from the prison cell or exile to the presidential palace is sudden and dramatic. Walesa in Poland, Havel in Czechoslovakia, and Mandela in South Africa moved almost overnight from opposition to government.

But in Burma, while the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, has moved from house arrest to parliament, she is still very much in opposition — with enormous moral authority but no real power.

'Not taking sides'

The moral authority stems in large measure from this unfinished revolution, begun by her father Aung San, leader of the "thirty companions" who formed the Burma Independence Army in 1941 under Japanese guidance, to fight against British colonial rule.

Just a few weeks after his re-election in November, U.S. President Barack Obama travelled to Burma, to meet Aung San Suu Kyi make a show of his hope for democratic change there. (Associated Press)

Dissatisfied with the Japanese occupation, he switched sides and eventual led Burma to independence before being assassinated in 1947.

But during the decades of dictatorship and military rule that followed Burma has never been at peace. Several of the country's many ethnic groups, denied the autonomy they were promised by the departing British, have been fighting against the central government ever since.

A more general uprising led by students was brutally suppressed in 1988.

(When I sneaked across the border from Thailand that year to report on the aftermath of the uprising, I met a group of surviving student leaders who were passing the time in a jungle camp with efforts to draft a new constitution for a democratic Burma. They astonished me by asking detailed questions about The British North America Act, and Canada’s arrangements to accommodate ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity.)

In some ways, Burma is fortunate in that, unlike, say, Egypt or Syria, it does have a leader-in-waiting in Aung San Suu Kyi, a world icon revered for her serene yet steely commitment to democracy and the rule of law in defiance of a thuggish military dictatorship.

But the devil of democracy is in the details, and two years after her release, she has yet to offer a clear vision of how to put Burma back together again.

Ominously, she has said nothing about the regime’s recent use of artillery and air power in the North.

Moreover, in June, when mobs belonging to the majority Burmese population committed pogroms against the Rohingya Muslim minority, she decided not to deploy her deep moral authority to stop the violence. 

Instead, she spoke of "not taking sides," as if there were some equivalence between the perpetrators and the victims of burning and killing.

Nor has she insisted on the release of all political prisoners, or objected strenuously to the detention of people who were protesting against a big mining operation that is jointly owned by the Burmese and Chinese militaries.

Dance of the superpowers

To be sure, Suu Kyi is constrained by the immense power of the military.

President Thien Sein, the former general playing the role of Burma's Gorbachev, released her in 2010, after 15 years of house arrest, and while her party went on to win 43 parliamentary seats in a byelection, the army still holds most of the cards.

She has made a strategic decision to work with the military, and has to avoid appearing to lay down the law on many issues for fear of provoking a backlash from the generals.

Many opposition groups are skeptical that the military really intends to give up its monopoly on power and wealth when the country's 2015 general elections come around, and Aung San Suu Kyi was certainly referring to doubts about the generals' sincerity when she talked about the "mirage of success."

The challenges ahead are formidable. The U.S. interest in Burma, part of President Obama's national security "pivot" toward Asia, is a useful counterweight to China's heavy-handed neighbourly "friendship."

But it is not easy to be caught between the interests of two large powers.

It will also be tough to manage development and the new flood of foreign investment while preventing a rapacious free-for-all grab for resources and  the ruination of the country's environment and culture.

What's more, the whole project will be in doubt if more of the long-running ethnic insurrections are reignited.

The group of youngsters I met in a jungle encampment 25 years ago believed  that their country will never be at peace without a democratic constitution for all of its citizens.

Surely it's not too soon for Aung San Suu Kyi to show whether she spent at least some those endless days confined to the ramshackle elegance of her lakeside home working through some sort of constitutional reading list, in preparation for the day when the Slow Revolution finally comes to an end.