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Aung San Suu Kyi could realise her dream of leading Burma at the next elections, but only if she has the full support of the nation’s many ethnic groups behind her, says a high-ranking commander in the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
The Nobel laureate’s opposition party has been given the nod of approval to rejoin mainstream politics by President Thein Sein’s government, meaning Suu Kyi could run for a seat in parliament.
Colonel Ner Dah of the KNLA, the armed wing of the Karen National Union, says Suu Kyi’s political future depends on whether she can win the support of Burma’s ethnic groups.
“Right now she has a good chance because she’s the daughter of a Burmese hero,” Ner Dah says. “She should speak out for the ethnic groups and then she’ll get majority support. But if she shows that she’s not aware of the ethnic differences and problems, then she will lose their backing.”
Around 40 per cent of Burma’s population is made up of some 135 distinct ethnic groups. Their plight has long been ignored by the central government, whose army has sought to crush rebellions in the border regions since the country’s independence from British rule. The Karen had been promised an independent state by the British before they left Burma in 1948, but this has never been realised.
Their animosity towards the Burmese government stems largely from the maligned tactics used by the army in the border regions, which has targeted civilians in a bid to cut perceived support of the armed group among the Karen. Hundreds of villages have been razed over the past decade, and more than half a million people displaced.
Recent moves by the government to negotiate ceasefires with armed groups come on the back of a recent visit to Burma by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who appealed to Thein Sein to end attacks on ethnic minorities. On Monday domestic media reported that the president had ordered an end to offensives against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the north, although as of yesterday, fighting was ongoing.
Ner Dah says ethnic groups have hailed Suu Kyi as a potential leader who could unite Burma and lead the impoverished country towards peace and prosperity. Following the official reinstatement of her National League for Democracy party yesterday, Suu Kyi looks set to re-enter the country’s political arena following years on the sidelines.
However, Ner Dah says Suu Kyi walks a fine line between being seen to represent the needs of her supporters and not angering the current government.
“Some people think she doesn’t know much about the ethnic issues and others think she is restricted [as to the extent she can speak] openly at the moment,” he says. “But if she wants to be at the top, then she has to speak for Burma as a whole, including the ethnic groups.”
“If she doesn’t talk about ethnic rights then she will lose her chance to be in office.”
He says Suu Kyi needs to outline her political position and make it clear that she is in support of the ethnic groups.
“A lot of people right now, even among the ethnic groups, are talking about her already,” Ner Dah says. “However, there are already some criticisms from different ethnic groups about her so she has to be very careful to create her own political identity in order to win, otherwise she will lose.
He says Suu Kyi’s decision to engage in dialogue with the Thein Sein administration and lack of engagement with the nation’s ethnic leaders has stirred suspicions and distrust among many ethnic Burmese.
“Right now, Suu Kyi talks to the government while the Kachin people run from the soldiers and hide in the refugee camps, so of course they are thinking that she doesn’t support them,” he says.
Ner Dah says Burma’s ethnic groups want reassurance from Suu Kyi.
“You need to keep the people’s support. Once you lose their support, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you won’t win the race because your strength comes from the people.
“People have a short memory. They want to hear the news today that she loves and supports them and next week they want to hear it again. As a politician you have to think about these things.”