Burma’s Suu Kyi Dazzles Overseas but Faces Myriad Problems Back Home

Burmese parliamentarian and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi capped off her world tour with a historic address in the U.K. Parliament. But for all the accolades she has received abroad, she knows how much more of a struggle there is at home

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Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Aung San Suu Kyi addresses a joint session of U.K. Parliament inside Westminster Hall in London on June 21, 2012

She has charmed the world. In London, on June 21, Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi melted one of the toughest audiences of all, drawing applause from journalists gathered at 10 Downing Street for her press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Later she addressed a joint session of the Houses of Parliament, making her one of only four foreign dignitaries to be given this privilege since World War II and only the second woman to do so (Queen Elizabeth II was the other). Such a welcome might have induced euphoria, but Suu Kyi used her platform to warn against assuming that her freedom to travel signaled an end to Burma’s problems. “So many hills remain to be climbed, chasms to be bridged, obstacles to be reached,” she said.

The historic speech capped a week of high-profile globetrotting by Suu Kyi, who until May had not left Burma for 24 years, spending most of the intervening time under house arrest at the behest of the country’s ruling junta. After traveling to Thailand in May to attend an economic conference and meet with Burmese refugees and migrants, Suu Kyi visited Oslo to pick up the Nobel Peace Prize she was unable to collect when it was awarded to her 21 years ago. In Ireland, she hobnobbed with socially conscious rock star Bono, who looked gleeful just to share a stage with such an adored activist. On June 19, in London, Suu Kyi met with fellow Nobel Peace laureate, the Dalai Lama, who is one of the few other untainted exemplars of nonviolent resistance in our times. Described as a private meeting, the confab between the two famous Buddhists was a summit of dazzling smiles that left millions across the globe enchanted.

(PHOTOS: Aung San Suu Kyi’s World Tour)

The next day, which happened to be her 67th birthday, Suu Kyi visited Oxford, where she was granted an honorary degree. The trip was bittersweet: Suu Kyi was revisiting the place where she had lived with her British academic husband and their two children before she embarked on her unexpected career as a Burmese democratic hero. It was only upon returning to Burma to care for her sick mother in 1988 that Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero Aung San, was suddenly thrust into politics and cast in a new role as the voice for one of the world’s most oppressed populaces. When her husband was dying of cancer in 1999, he was rejected for a visa to visit her in Burma, where she was between spells of house arrest. Suu Kyi dared not leave Burma for fear that the military regime would not allow her back home. She missed much of her sons’ childhoods and has told me on two occasions that they paid a “sacrifice” for their mother’s political activism.

Meanwhile, back in Burma, which is known officially as Myanmar, President Thein Sein was making news too. On June 19, in a landmark televised speech, he vowed to undertake a “second wave” of economic reforms that will triple GDP by 2016. In recent days, Burma has been hosting a slew of conferences to lure foreign investment to a desperately poor country that is rich in natural resources. Sanctions had limited many Western companies from investing in Burma, but most governments have begun lifting, or at least suspending, these financial restrictions because of the Burmese regime’s apparent commitment to reforms. On Tuesday, Thein Sein promised to undertake reform in various closed industries, from telecommunications to logging, through which military cronies have profited handsomely even as one-third of the nation lives in poverty. The Burmese President also committed himself to poverty alleviation in one of Asia’s most indigent nations.

The leader of a quasi-civilian government that took power last year after flawed elections, the former general has surprised critics by steering a course away from the policies of the junta that ruled Burma so brutally for nearly half a century. So far, Thein Sein has overseen the release of hundreds of political prisoners and signed cease-fires — albeit tenuous ones — with some of Burma’s fractious ethnic minorities, who were long oppressed by the ethnically Bamar majority in the military regime. He has approved currency reforms that are crucial to attracting foreign investment; a law guiding such incoming investments will be signed soon, according to the President’s televised address. Thein Sein has also met with Suu Kyi, long regarded the military’s nemesis. He presided over critical by-elections in April, in which the overwhelming victory by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was upheld. (The last time the NLD participated in polls, back in 1990, the party also won by a landslide but the then ruling junta ignored the results.) Suu Kyi is now a member of parliament, the first time the veteran opposition leader has held a government role.

(PHOTOS: Sectarian Unrest in Burma Sees Dozens Dead, Thousands Fleeing)

But even as representatives of global mining firms and other businesses dedicated to operating in frontier economies joined a conference in Burma’s commercial capital, Rangoon, on Wednesday, Suu Kyi was rehearsing the message that she delivered from her podium in London — against premature rejoicing. Throughout her global tour, Suu Kyi has called for ethical foreign investment that will not just enrich members of the military or their business cronies. Burma certainly has the potential to become yet another emerging economy where natural-resource riches don’t trickle down to the population at large.

Britain has called for sanctions to be suspended against Burma and on the day of Suu Kyi’s visit confirmed that the government has invited Thein Sein to visit. In June, the U.S., which has suspended some of the economic sanctions that were imposed because of Burma’s poor human-rights record, dropped the country from its list of nations with the worst records of human trafficking. The International Labour Organization, whose Geneva headquarters Suu Kyi visited earlier this month, also relaxed some punitive measures on Burma after an investigative mission convinced the U.N. body that the government is committed to decreasing the incidence of forced labor. Rights groups that track Burma, however, are counseling caution, arguing that far more needs to be done.

There’s also the serious matter of continuing ethnic violence in a country that has over the decades proved a communal tinderbox. In the country’s far western Arakan (or Rakhine) state, at least 80 people have been killed this month in riots between the Buddhist Arakanese population and a stateless group of Muslims known as the Rohingya. The latest outbreak of violence occurred on Tuesday, when around a dozen fatalities occurred, according to reports in exile media. Some 90,000 people on both sides of the ethnic divide have been displaced by the sectarian strife and are in desperate need of immediate food and shelter, according to the U.N.

(MORE: Will Ethnic Violence Kill Burma’s Reforms?)

Separately, in the country’s north, fighting between government forces and an ethnic Kachin militia continues to claim lives and has sent tens of thousands of Kachin, many of whom are Christian (unlike the Buddhist Bamar), into dire refugee camps. A deadline on June 20 for a cease-fire passed without any resolution, one of many failed attempts at brokering a truce since a 17-year armistice was broken a year ago.

Back home, all these problems and more await Suu Kyi. Yet she is not a head of state able to push through wide-ranging economic and political reforms. Those are the responsibilities of Thein Sein, and he must be careful not to overreach or give military hard-liners an opportunity to turn against his liberalizing agenda. For now, Suu Kyi’s role as inspirational icon is rightly being celebrated across the globe. She is, after all, one of the most eloquent advocates for democracy and human rights we have today. For Burma’s future, it can only be hoped that the momentum Suu Kyi has been able to garner overseas will extend to the strange crew of retired generals, avid businessmen and callow lawmakers who will guide the country after her stirring words fade from the week’s headlines.