Suu Kyi quietly shapes transition after big win

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi helping to pick up litter during a clean-up drive in Kawhmu township, on the outskirts of Yangon, on Dec 13. The exercise has been described by her party as bringing change through acts of individual responsibility.
Ms Aung San Suu Kyi helping to pick up litter during a clean-up drive in Kawhmu township, on the outskirts of Yangon, on Dec 13. The exercise has been described by her party as bringing change through acts of individual responsibility.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

She appears keen on building bridges and unlikely to rock the boat too much, too soon

NAYPYITAW (Myanmar) • Since her party's thumping election victory last month, Myanmar's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has said little and made few public appearances.

So when she emerged recently in her constituency, she was mobbed by reporters and photographers eager for some hint about how her National League for Democracy party will govern after the new Parliament sits next month.

It was not to be. The 70-year-old national icon had come to pick up litter, an exercise described by her party as bringing change through acts of individual responsibility.

"Don't just take photos," she admonished the photographers as she bent over to clear rubbish on the sandy soil of the Irrawaddy Delta. "Help pick up the garbage."

During the six weeks since she emerged as the most powerful person in this country of 51 million people, she has kept the country guessing on details of the transfer of power to her democracy movement from the military establishment that has ruled for more than five decades.

NATIONAL RECONCILIATION THE AIM

We won't be doing anything that will reduce the power of the army for the time being. We have to convince them that we really aim for national reconciliation.

MR WIN HTEIN, a senior party member and one of Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's closest advisers

She has done a lot of meditating, one aide said. "She says when things are so complicated in her mind, she meditates, and it gives her clarity and gives her simple answers," said Mr Phyo Min Thein, a member of the party's budget committee.

Nonetheless, behind the scenes, a transition is slowly starting to take shape. She has met, behind closed doors, minority ethnic groups, members of her party and crucial figures in the military with whom she will have to share power.

While the participants have given little public indication of what was said, interviews with senior officials suggest that she has quietly conveyed a message that she will not rock the boat too much, too soon.

Like Mr Nelson Mandela, another former political prisoner and Nobel laureate who came to rule a country that had kept him as a political prisoner, she appears keen on building bridges with her former jailers.

"The first intention was to soothe their nerves, that they would not be harmed," said Mr Win Htein, a senior party member and one of Ms Suu Kyi's closest advisers. "We just said we didn't want revenge, that we didn't have a personal grudge and that we wanted to move forward and talk about the future."

Ms Suu Kyi has told her party that it would "unwise" to push the military right now, he said. Party members still recall the last election they won - in 1990 - which the military followed up with the arrest of party leaders and two more decades of dictatorial rule.

She has also reassured the bureaucracy, which is packed with former military officers. At a meeting with senior civil servants last week, she told them they should not fear losing their jobs when her party comes to power.

For years, she has said that she wants national reconciliation, not revenge, but she has also promised to shake up the system. Her party's election manifesto calls for a reduction in the number of government ministries to "establish a lean and efficient government".

Before the election, she campaigned extensively to change the Constitution, which was written by the military and has a provision barring her from office.

Her party now appears to be willing to wait. Mr Win Htein said: "We won't be doing anything that will reduce the power of the army for the time being. We have to convince them that we really aim for national reconciliation."

Analysts say it is hard to read how that approach has been received by the military.

In one of the few public read-outs of the meetings she held with the military establishment, the grandson of dictator Than Shwe wrote on Facebook that "everyone has to accept the truth that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be the future leader of Myanmar after winning the elections".

Yet possible signs of friction with the military have also emerged. Officials in the outgoing government have expressed annoyance at her alliance with Mr Thura Shwe Mann, a former general who was the No. 3 official in the former dictatorship, but who has since been spurned by the ruling party hierarchy.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'Suu Kyi quietly shapes transition after big win'. Print Edition | Subscribe