AGI Top 12 in 2012: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma in 2012

AGI recaps the highlights of 2012, which we think made an impact and will continue to drive change in the coming years. These highlights and events are picked by AGI editorial team from fields of business, politics and culture across Asia.

Aung San Suu Kyi, picked her Nobel peace prize in Oslo this year, 21 years after the prize was announced, picking up her honorary doctorate in Oxford 19 years late. She became the first woman, the first Asian and the first non-head of state to address a joint session of the UK parliament in Westminster Hall. She recently made her official trip to India as well and US president, Barack Obama visited Burma on his presidential trip after being re-elected as the president.

There are doubtless many senior military men in Burma today whose views have not changed, and who would still be very glad if she were to go away and never come back. Much has changed on the surface of Burmese life in the past year, but further down, where it matters, the status quo is as it was: the army which has dominated the nation’s life and monopolised power since General Ne Win staged his coup d’etat in 1962 is still in the driving seat. President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi’s ally in the reform process, is another retired general.

The party he heads, the Union Solidarity and Development Party or USDP, is a proxy of the army. All the levers of power are still in the hands of military men. But enough has changed that Suu Kyi felt able in late May 2012 to board a plane at Mingaladon, Rangoon’s airport, for the short hop to Bangkok –and felt free for first time after 24 years of confinement. However, the same cannot be cannot be said of her country.

And in every speech she gave in Europe, Suu Kyi was at pains to underline how little had so far been achieved, how much more remained to be done. Optimism might be in order, but it should be cautious; “healthy scepticism” was a must. The next three years leading up to those elections are vital, and why Suu Kyi attaches so much importance to her alliance with Thein Sein.

He is the only Burmese military leader of whom she has spoken in complimentary terms, calling him a good listener who is serious about reforms. He is said to be personally honest, unlike many of his colleagues who used their positions to amass great fortunes. But he is in frail health, and wears a pacemaker. Suu Kyi herself will be 70 in 2015.

The reforms already achieved, which include a return to a sane exchange rate and other long-needed financial reforms, the legalisation of trade unions and the loosening of censorship, are significant, but Suu Kyi knows that the momentum of reform cannot be wasted. If her extraordinary career is to be crowned with success – perhaps with her becoming the next elected President – the two and a half years ahead will be critical.

By Peter Popham

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