Nan Chen

Is Aung San Suu Kyi Losing Her Shine?

Aung San Suu Kyi had near unanimous support among Chinese netizens, but could her latest move take that glow away?

After over a decade under house arrest, the Burmese opposition party leader (and Nobel Peace Prize recipient) was released in 2010.  In that same year, after winning an election that many decried as rigged, the ruling military junta of Myanmar (also known as Burma) has cautiously taken steps toward reform and reconciliation. In April of this year, Ms. Suu Kyi and her party won parliamentary elections, but have refused to take their seats in Parliament.  Ms. Suu Kyi is boycotting Parliament, because she would be required to swear an oath to the current constitution which she believes to be illegitimate. While Chinese netizens adore Ms. Suu Kyi’s ideals, they seem to be less enthusiastic about this wrangling over what some consider a largely symbolic issue.  

A Female Gandhi?

The appeal of Aung San Suu Kyi as a champion for democracy and reform has steadily grown in China. Chinese netizens were exposed to Ms. Suu Kyi and her life’s work through the 2011 biographical film, The Lady, in which the popular Michelle Yeoh plays Ms. Suu Kyi. Though the film was banned from Chinese theaters, it garnered near unanimous support from the online community who praised Ms. Suu Kyi as “the world’s most beautiful woman” (@郝哥郝哥亮晶晶) (of course, perhaps this commenter was talking about Michelle Yeoh), and a female Gandhi (@澤linlin). Wrote @邃邃念: “She’s the ultimate woman, her story must be spread!” 

Michelle Yeoh channels The Lady

A few weeks ago Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party won nearly every seat in Myanmar’s by-elections.  Again, Chinese netizens appeared uniformly supportive of this victory, with many seeing this as not just the victory for the Burmese opposition party, but a victory for democracy and the rule of law. Of course, no event of this magnitude is without its detractors.  For example, one particularly vehement commenter, @周墨菡, accused Ms. Suu Kyi of “selling her soul.” This netizen may be referring to concerns that by participating in the elections, Ms. Suu Kyi further legitimizes what many consider an illegitimate military government (or judging by the tone of her post, she may just be an angry person).  

Despite these comments, the vast majority of reactions was positive and even prompted some netizens to juxtapose Myanmar against China. @白雪平大叔 tweets, “In our lifetime, we may be able to see a similar scene in China.” @ F小姐的一天 writes, “After ten years of lagging behind, Myanmar has advanced beyond us in the end.”  Others like @我叫大白兔 express the notion more succinctly: “Envious!”

Between a Rock and a Hardliner Constitution

However, Aun San Suu Kyi and her party’s latest move has elicited more equivocal responses.  Just a few days prior to taking their seats as new members of parliament, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, threw a wrench in the plans. Under the current procedures, new members of parliament must swear an oath before being seated. The NLD refused to swear the oath, which contained a promise to “uphold and abide by the constitution of the Union.” Rather, they asked that the vow to be changed to “respect the constitution.”

While some view this as largely a symbolic battle, the NLD ran on a platform of amending the constitution, a document that the NLD (and many outside observers) see as illegitimate.  This constitution was pushed through by the former military junta in 2008 and automatically grants the military at least one quarter of the parliamentary seats. Many Chinese netizens support this decision, encouraging Ms. Suu Kyi to stick to her guns. @也是個溜肩 wrote, “All I know is that my admiration of this woman has gone up a notch.”“Aung San Suu Kyi is right to do this,” tweeted @伯林2011. Wrote @务虚时代: “Humanity needs people of such high ideals.”

The Lady's Loyal Supporters (REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)

However, other netizens are less enthusiastic, seeing this as political maneuvering and an unnecessary roadblock in Burma’s democratization. Some have chided Ms. Suu Kyi and her party for getting caught up over what they see as a largely symbolic gesture.  @账号N太夸张 reasoned that “defending the constitution does not necessarily mean defending only this version, nor does it eliminate the possibility of amending the constitution.  Aung San Suu Kyi need not be so uncompromising on this issue.” 

Others feel that her obstinacy may hinder reconciliation and progress in Myanmar. @圆排骨writes, “To bring up this demand at this time may not be the wisest move.” Still others see this as politicking and question why the NLD did not bring this issue up earlier when they were running for parliament.  @Petriv questioned, “If you’re protesting the constitution, why participate in elections in the first place?” Some in the western press has been similarly lukewarm over this latest development.  Foreign Policy magazine’s Transitions blog called Ms. Suu Kyi out and cautioned that she “pick her battles rather than waste valuable energy in a fight over symbolism.” 

Boycotting Parliament and Pragmatism

Perhaps recognizing the precarious position that her party is now in, Ms. Suu Kyi, speaking in Burmese during her weekly address on Radio Free Asia, cautioned that “we don’t mean we will not attend the parliament, we mean we will attend only after taking the [amended] oath.” Still, on April 23, her party boycotted the inaugural Parliamentary meeting and refused to take their seats.

It remains to be seen how Burma’s ruling party reacts or how outsiders interpret these decisions.  But if initial reactions are any indicator, it seems that while China’s netizens surely support democracy and reform, they are pragmatic in their approach towards both.

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Nan Chen

Nan Chen is an attorney and activist interested in issues of international development, rule of law and China. He is the co-chair of the International Development Exchange's Young Professionals Group and provides pro bono services to the Accountability Counsel. He previously clerked for the Center on Wrongful Convictions during law school and worked with NGOs focused on building civil society and rule of law in China.