How Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is allowing U Thein Sein to become Myanmar’s smartest politician

How Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is allowing U Thein Sein to become Myanmar’s smartest politician
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (L) and Information Minister U Ye Htut (R) arrive at a meeting to celebrate International Press Freedom Day in Yangon. Photo: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

Recent events reveal surprising insights into which national political figures are most engaged with the democratic challenge of Myanmar’s ‘vote winning’ process. These insights challenge the expectation of the national election is a lopsided political battle between U Thein Sein’s government and an overwhelmingly popular Daw Aung San Suu Kyi led opposition, with ethnic minority parties campaigning principally on the periphery.
At this point in the electoral cycle, President U Thein Sein appears the most politically savvy of the major players as he actively engages in winning domestic support and votes—suggesting a sincere commitment to the democratic process. Meanwhile, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy should be mindful that they have the most to lose if they stick to their strategy of threatened electoral non-participation without constitutional change.
Democracies are far from perfect. Winston Churchill quipped as much to the House of Commons in 1947 saying “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. He could well have been speaking of contemporary Myanmar and the struggles of its major political players to manage both the opportunities and limits of Myanmar’s democracy.
Far from the hoped-for instant panacea for all that might ail the country, democracy has, at times, appeared frustratingly slow and ineffective to deliver change for Myanmar. Whether or not Churchill’s view—that democracy is still better than any other system of government—will become the reality for Myanmar’s voters hinges presently upon how the country’s political figures engage and are seen to engage with the new democratic processes.
The political machinations surrounding the hugely significant signing of the draft Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) provide intriguing insights into the major players’ engagement with the democratic process and importantly, their current campaign strategies. This produces some surprising results. Predictably, it is U Thein Sein who is making the most optimistic noises about the signing of the draft NCA. The President’s office describes how U Thein Sein hailed participants as, ‘the builders of peace as desired by the people’. This optimism has been followed closely by the ethnic minorities who can well claim credit for engaging the government in a ‘political dialogue’ and establishing its first step towards making Myanmar a truly federal state.
Meanwhile, it is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who has taken a most pessimistic and arguably confrontational stance in the days following the signing of the draft NCA. She has chosen to largely ignore the positive outcomes of the draft agreement and instead continues to refocus the national political debate back on issues of constitutional change.
As a pre-election strategy it is certainly a curious one. Does Daw Aung San Suu Kyi genuinely believe the voters’ desire for constitutional change will trump their interest in national peace and prosperity?
U Thein Sein’s pre-election tactical stance, on the other hand, is far more politically sound. He is actively talking up the positives of the draft NCA, making sure voters will remember it as an achievement of his government. The President is keen to explain to the country’s majority Burman population, from whom he stands the most chance of winning significant numbers of votes, that the draft NCA is an achievement that will deliver peace – for them.
President U Thein Sein’s political strategy is remarkably transparent, straightforward and sensible. This is the strategy of a smart politician preparing to face the voters at an election. By engaging in this way, the President is demonstrating his understanding of how the democratic process works and how to best take advantage of this. U Thein Sein, whether or not he is passionate about democratic principles, is demonstrating a clear understanding of the requirements for success within a democratic political structure. The former general is showing his understanding that the next election will be won by votes. This campaign approach simultaneously demonstrates a clear expectation that democracy will be a feature of Myanmar political life into the future.
Based on this, we can expect to see much more of the same from the President. U Thein Sein is likely to seek out more opportunities to woo voters. This should provide the government with a motivation to resolve some long-running political problems in the months before the national elections are held. This is certainly cause for genuine optimism amid a national political discourse heavily focussed, in recent times, on questions of stalled reform.
The ethnic minorities’ reaction to the draft NCA has been similarly predictable and understandable. However, they have much more cope to develop and expand their political strategy before polling day to gain the most out of the country’s new democratic structures. Their policy priorities can be made more mainstream and central to the national political debate by focussing on peace and the prosperity this will bring to the nation as a whole, not just to ethnic minority communities.
This leaves Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s political strategy as most urgently needing to change as the election approaches.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision, in the days following the signing of the draft NCA, to suggest she would not rule out an election boycott is a curious political tactic for a member of parliament who has fought so long for Myanmar to transition towards democratic, civilian rule.
Myanmar needs Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to support and participate in the national elections to make its fledgling democracy stronger. Her supporters deserve and need The Lady and her party to be involved in decision-making about their country’s future. It would be cruelly ironic for Myanmar’s voters if the leader who sacrificed so much to work for freedom and democracy failed to take advantage of the electoral opportunities Myanmar’s democracy now presents.
Even more ironically, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi risks being accused of failing to support and nurture Myanmar’s democracy if she continues to threaten non-participation in the elections.
Politicians’ engagement with the democratic process will lead to greater reform in Myanmar. Democracy requires politicians to win votes to remain in office. In such a political system, politicians become pre-disposed to deliver policies the voters desire. It becomes a good habit. Engagement by Myanmar’s political leaders with core democratic processes like elections indicates they are likely, in the future, to deliver the policies and reforms the voters want to see. Such engagement with fair elections and the desire to remain in office, will lead towards long-term reform.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be well advised to quickly revise her strategy of threatened non-participation and focus instead on winning votes in the lead in to the national election. This is a tactic U Thein Sein has already strongly embraced.
For Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the political leader considered the most popular in the country and widely expected to achieve a comprehensive election victory, the tactic of threatened non-engagement in this election process could be extremely politically costly. Her non-participation would also likely be damaging to the prospects of the continued development of Myanmar’s democracy and a great disappointment to the country’s voters.
Voters throughout Myanmar have waited decades for the opportunity to elect Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to office. It would be sad if they were denied this chance in 2015 because of a continued preoccupation with which office she could be elected to this time.
In such a scenario, the real winner will be U Thein Sein. He is already demonstrating his engagement with the country’s democratic system by actively wooing voters in much the same way as political candidates would in more established democracies like the UK or the USA. U Thein Sein is demonstrating he is the cleverer politician, despite Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation as a democratic icon.
This Article first appeared in the May 14, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
Mizzima Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at