One of President Thein Sein’s top advisers and spokesmen has publically criticized Aung San Suu Kyi, following her appearance and remarks at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Bangkok last week.
It is the first instance of direct criticism of Suu Kyi by President Thein Sein’s government, and it has opened up the possibility of friction between Suu Kyi and the Thein Sein administration. The consequences – if true – could be far reaching, or it may just be a case of both sides learning to adjust to the realities of a multi-party political system in which many people occupy the public stage and express different opinions.
Shortly after Suu Kyi return home on Sunday, presidential adviser Nay Zin Latt told The New York Times that she lacked “transparency” in carrying out her trip to Thailand, and he focused on her comments warning international investors against “reckless optimism” regarding the speed of change in Burma, and the role of the military. Her visit to a Karen refugee camp also appeared to raise eyebrows in Naypyitaw, because it brought to mind the military’s role in ethnic areas that still complain of oppressive military domination in spite of recent cease-fires in many areas. The Times' story said Suu Kyi may have "strained" her relationship with Thein Sein.
“Personally, I really admire her, but I have a doubt,” adviser Nay Zin Latt said in an e-mail to the Times’ reporter. A businessman and former Army officer, Nay Zin Latt owned several hotels among other businesses and he had written widely on politics, in which he was critical of the lack of democracy in Burma, before his appointment as a presidential adviser. He had never met President Thein Sein when he was appointed in early 2011.
In a Wall Street Journal interview in November 2011, he spoke of the relationship between President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi at the time they were forging a bond to work together – each in their own way – to move the country toward democracy.
WSJ: Can you comment on Aung San Suu Kyi's role in this. Is the government happy with how she has responded?
Mr. Nay Zin Latt: I can't speak for the government's perspective. From my personal perspective, the changes are very big. She has met three times with the union minister and one time with the president. She should appreciate more the government actions.
WSJ: Are you saying she's not welcoming enough with what's happened? When we talked to her, for instance, she said this was the most open time in Burma since 1988.
Mr. Nay Zin Latt: What [she] is used to saying is, let's watch. The change is not enough. We should watch, we should wait. My personal feeling is, if it's good, have enough courage to say it's good. If it's bad, it will be criticized. Mutual appreciation can make the other party happier and gain more encouragement.
WSJ: What is she negotiating about with the president?
Mr. Nay Zin Latt: I'm not in a position to know. This is very top secret. Only between the president and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Since President Thein Sein cancelled his scheduled trip to both the WEF and a later trip to Thailand, the Thai news media and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have portrayed the cancellations as a negative reaction to Suu Kyi wide-ranging comments while in Thailand, in which she focused on investment reform efforts, the lack of rule of law and on the ethnic Karen community that is sheltered in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. The Thai authorities cut back her access to the Karen community, denying her a public forum to make a speech to the refugees in the camp.
The heart of the administrations discomfort may lie in Suu Kui’s “star power” and the immense pent up curiosity about her personal story, which has elements of the classic myth of a princess locked up in a tower who finally finds freedom and leads her people to a better world. Her story has given her a worldwide platform and her comments are amplified around the world.
The signal sent by the presidential adviser to Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy is that the government does not like to be overshadowed by Suu Kyi, no matter their working relationship, and no matter the immense interest in her as a political figure.
How this may translate in the upcoming session of Parliament and Suu Kyi’s continued role in the democratization process is unknown, but it could put a damper on her remarks – or at least her specific wording – when she embarks on a five-country European tour in a few weeks. On the other hand, her outspokenness is what many in the pro-democracy camp say is needed, and she is in danger of being co-opted by the administration.
A criticism frequently leveled at Suu Kyi and the NLD is that her personal statements and the NLD policy positions often seem to be spontaneously created rather than carefully worded and thought out. Critics say this is somewhat to be expected since Suu Kyi and the NLD are now dealing with the vastly more complex world of the international press and with issues where their remarks are carefully parsed.
The discontent over her six-day visit to neighboring Thailand underlines the fragility of her country’s transition, wrote Thomas Fuller, the Times’ reporter.
“The complicated and delicate relationship between the president and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a newly elected lawmaker, is in some ways the bedrock of the current reform process in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Their meeting in August accelerated the changes sweeping the country and helped persuade Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi to rejoin the political system,” he wrote.
“… the potential for discord between them worries people in Myanmar. So far, political change has been a personality-driven process rather than an institutional one, and as Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters during her visit to Thailand, Mr. Thein Sein does not have an obvious successor. Both she and Mr. Thein Sein are in their late 60s and have health concerns. (Mr. Thein Sein has a heart ailment, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been forced to rest by her doctors twice in recent weeks.)”
Indeed, for many observers, Burma’s reform process rests on the relationship between Thein Sein, a former general, and Suu Kyi, a former prisoner of the military regime who spent 15 of the past 24 years under house arrests.
They had never met before their first meeting on August 19, 2011, which last only one hour. From that meeting, spokesmen said an “understanding” and been reached, and Suu Kyi has said repeatedly that she believes Thein Sein is sincere in his reform efforts and that she trusts him. They met again in April 2012 for a few hours prior to Suu Kyi taking the oath of office as a Member of Parliament.
Fuller ended his report with an overall assessment of the discord and the prospects for the future: “The changes in Myanmar have been sudden and with few parallels — military juntas rarely voluntarily yield to civilian control — so analysts hesitate when asked to predict the country’s immediate future. But it seems unlikely that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi will be placed under house arrest again or forced out of politics, because she retains considerable leverage. Her popularity is overwhelming, and sidelining her would be perilous for any government that tried,” he said.