Aung San Suu Kyi: A Nelson Mandela or a Sonia Gandhi?

Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi: will Aung San Suu Kyi govern like her Indian counterpart, through her party leadership? Arkabishal/Wikimedia Commons

The spokesman and a leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) has said that Aung San Suu Kyi will not take up any position in the Myanmar government, but will instead control it from her current position as party leader of the NLD.

Those remarks by Zaw Myint Maung have been so far been the clearest indication as to what role Ms Suu Kyi will play, as the new Myanmar government prepares to take office on 1 April.

“Taking positions is not that important any more”, said Zaw Myint Maung. “In the United States there are many famous lawmakers in the parliament who are very influential, but they don’t take any position in the cabinet.

“She will lead the [ruling] party so, she will [by extension] lead the government formed by that party.”

Her role, as such, has been compared by NLD officials to that of Sonia Gandhi of India, who dominated the government of Manmohan Singh from 2004 to 2014, while she remained the leader of the Congress party.

Indeed, there are similarities in the cases of Sonia Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi. Gandhi, who was born in Italy, steered away from being prime minister of India when her Congress party won India’s general election of 2004, fearing that the issue of her foreign birth would cause controversy.

Unlike the presidency of Myanmar though, India’s laws do not prevent anyone born abroad or with foreign spouses or relatives from being prime minister.

In the lead-up to the November 2015 general election in Myanmar in which the NLD swept into power, Ms Suu Kyi had said that a comparison of her situation to Sonia Gandhi’s was “not quite accurate”. She has not commented on it since.

Ms Suu Kyi gives up a Nelson Mandela dream – and for the wiser

In that landslide victory late last year, observers and supporters were envisaging a “Nelson Mandela moment” for Ms Suu Kyi.

The first post-apartheid president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for 27 years for his revolutionary activities, before he became the country’s first black leader in 1994. Like Ms Suu Kyi, Mandela was also a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

But the similarities end there. Ms Suu Kyi has been barred from the presidency of Myanmar because of a constitutional clause that disqualifies anyone with a foreign spouse from that office.

She was then presented with a chance to do a deal with Myanmar’s generals, who continue to wield power over the country.

But she did not cave in. Doing so would have mortally wounded her moral authority, as it involved trading away some key regional political positions held by the NLD.

The presidency was ultimately filled by a “proxy” candidate put up by the NLD, Htin Kyaw.

With the latest announcement by the NLD, Ms Suu Kyi looks set to also decline a seat in the Myanmar government. Observers had expected her to take up the position of foreign minister.

But doing so would have required her to give up “active politics”, effectively meaning that she would have to step down as NLD leader. It is unclear what such a move would entail within the NLD party ranks, as it is poised to take on the task of governing the country.

If so, Aung San Suu Kyi has made a brilliant move and will emerge stronger politically.

Thoughts from our readers in Myanmar:

“Daw Aung San Su is our heart and our new president is our head. Both of them are very important for us and our country, Myanmar.”

  • Thiha Zaw, from Indaw

“[Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] needs no title. She is the leading force which will propel the country.”

  • Nu Nu, from Yangon

“The people of Myanmar have made their aspirations known. I am more interested to know what ASEAN governments think, and what ASEAN governments think their next steps should be, vis-à-vis the next government.”

  • Aye Win, from Yangon