Aung San Suu Kyi made me a cup of tea at her lakeside Yangon home before voicing her acute unhappiness with India for leaving her in the lurch. I remember sipping tea from the finest bone china and taking notes as she poured her heart out to a group of Indian journalists in 1995. New Delhi had fully backed Suu Kyi when she first took on Myanmar’s generals in 1988. India, which shares a 1600-km-long border with Myanmar, openly supported Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). All India Radio’s broadcasts in Burmese language fanned the pro-democracy movement. India-backed NLD won a landslide victory in 1990 but instead of handing over the reins to Suu Kyi the military junta put her under house arrest. But India’s commitment did not falter; it honoured her with the Nehru Award in 1993 soon after she won the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Then India did a stunning U-turn. It dumped Suu Kyi and embraced the generals to check China’s growing influence in Myanmar. New Delhi also wanted the junta to flush out Indian rebel groups from their hideouts in the jungles of Myanmar. The betrayal evidently shattered Suu Kyi’s faith in India.
A lot of water has flown down the Irrawady River since the Nobel laureate cried on the Indian media’s shoulder. Myanmar has changed drastically in 19 years. Suu Kyi no longer needs India’s diplomatic, moral or material support. But having closely followed her career, I would like to offer a piece of advice to repay her gracious hospitality! Although India let her down, she must again turn to India for inspiration in her own interest. To be more precise, Suu Kyi should take a leaf out of Sonia Gandhi’s book if she is serious about evicting the junta and taking control of her nation.
Myanmar will go to the polls next year. Suu Kyi is undoubtedly Myanmar’s most popular politician. But between her and the presidency stands Clause 59(F) of the 2008 junta-drafted constitution, which disqualifies anyone whose spouse or children are foreign nationals from holding the highest office. Her late husband, Michael Aris, was a British academic. Her sons, Alexander and Kim, hold British passports. So even if NLD wins the majority of seats in 2015 and newly elected MPs unanimously want Suu Kyi as president, she still won’t be sworn in as president thanks to 59(F) whose sole purpose is to ensure that she never becomes the country’s ruler.
Suu Kyi, of course, hasn’t thrown in the towel; her mood seems to be combative. Standing at the crossroads, she keeps reminding her people and the world that she wants to be the president. Naturally, she is fighting for constitutional amendments; recently declaring that “if we do not change the constitution, we cannot say our country is really a democracy, and if an election is held with an unfair constitution, the result will also be unfair.” But given the vice-like grip of Tatmadaw (armed forces) on polity — President Thein Sein is a former general and the army-backed ruling party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and army-nominated MPs together account for 80 per cent of lawmakers at present — it’s unlikely that 59F will be scrapped before 2015 elections, however hard she tries.
In this grim scenario, Suu Kyi would do well to emulate Sonia. Sonia too had a “foreign” issue to contend with. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attacked Sonia’s Italian origins despite her acquiring Indian citizenship. Unlike Suu Kyi, Sonia didn’t face constitutional or legal hurdles; she could have become the Prime Minister if she wanted. But she chose to silence her opponents by not becoming the prime minister. Instead, she appointed an unquestioning loyalist with a clean image but without a following – Manmohan Singh – as PM. Since 2004 Sonia, the undisputed leader of the Congress Party, has ruled India by proxy with the PM reporting to her on a daily basis.
By my reckoning, Suu Kyi’s is definitely more popular in Myanmar than Sonia is in India. In Myanmar, the president is the equivalent of India’s prime minister. Of course, the president is not directly elected in Myanmar just as the Indian PM is not directly elected by voters. Both are selected by the party which wins a majority in parliament. So Suu Kyi must find her own Manmohan Singh — an NLD MP who she completely trusts; someone who will give his right hand to be her puppet. After NLD defeats USDP in next year’s polls, Suu Kyi can appoint her handpicked candidate as the president who will ungrudgingly execute her orders right or wrong. Her wish will be the new president’s command! There can be no better strategy to circumvent 59F and beat the generals at their own game.
I don’t know how the junta will react when Suu Kyi’s game-plan becomes public knowledge. But it’s bound to give at least three generals eyeing the presidency sleepless nights: Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of armed forces itching to make his political debut with a bang after his retirement later this year; and two former generals — Thura Shwe Mann, Speaker and USDP Chairman whose vaulting ambition is Myanmar’s worst-kept secret, and President Thein Sein who wants to have another go at the top job. If their bête noir manages to install a puppet president, the generals should blame Sonia for showing Suu Kyi the way.
S.N.M Abdi is a noted Indian journalist and commentator.