For Suu Kyi, one small step abroad - and a giant leap of faith

At his meeting with Myanmarese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi this morning, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a sartorial statement that was, in many ways, more eloquent than he himself is customarily known to be.

Singh had “dressed down” to his kurta-pyjama, which lent the meeting an air of informality, marking it as one that did not merit the badge of honour of an official meeting. At his official meetings with Myanmarese government leaders, by contrast, he was attired in striking bandhgala suits, which conveyed a certain formality that merits such occasions.

In every other way too, Manmohan Singh was mindful not to elevate the profile of his meeting with Suu Kyi so as not to convey to Myanmarese government leaders any signal that was apt to be misconstrued. Even when he arrived in Myanmar on Saturday on what was a ground-breaking trip that will enhance trade and investment cooperation between the two countries, Manmohan Singh – in comments to the media at the airport – initially omitted to mention his scheduled meeting with Suu Kyi. Only in response to mediapersons’ prompting did he acknowledge, without taking Suu Kyi’s name, that he looked forward to meeting “her”.

Diplomatic dance manoeuvres such as these, of course, signal an excessive eagerness on the part of the Indian establishment to accommodate the prickly feelings of the Myanmar regime. From the perspective of the Indian side, the meeting with Suu Kyi was intended largely for being seen to be doing the politically correct thing. Suu Kyi herself has in the past (here) expressed disappointment at India’s failure to be more supportive of the Myanmarese movement for democracy, which she said was particularly striking given India’s leadership of freedom movements in an earlier time.

Singh with Myanmar's Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. PTI

But they also signal that for all the strides that Myanmar’s rulers have made in recent months towards greater political openness, they keep a wary eye out on Suu Kyi’s interactions with visiting dignitaries, of whom there have been a fair few in recent weeks. Suu Kyi’s immense popularity – in freedom-loving circles at home and abroad – invests her with an aura that they cannot hope to match, and it gives them more than a little disquiet.

For instance, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, the face of the political reforms now under way in his country, has hastily cancelled plans to travel to Thailand this week to attend a World Economic Forum meeting on East Asia – after it became known that the conference organisers had invited Suu Kyi as well.

Thein Sein had initially accepted the invitation to address the conference, which symbolised Myanmar’s gradual integration into the world order from which it had been banished for the three decades that it was under military rule. But he cancelled it, saying that he had "urgent matters" to attend to at home.

Political observers, however, say that Thein Sein was acutely conscious of the fact that his participation at the conference would be overshadowed by Suu Kyi’s presence – given that it is her first visit overseas in 24 years.

During her visit, Suu Kyi will also meet Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – and additionally visit Myanmarese refugees and migrant workers who had fled the ethnic conflict in the areas that border the two countries.

Over the next several weeks, Suu Kyi will fly to several European countries, during which she will deliver a (long-delayed) Nobel Prize acceptance speech and address both houses of Parliament. Myanmarese leaders will be watching her every step of the way – in particular, what says overseas and how she is received abroad – to figure out how what this means for their future.

The last time that Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was overseas was in 1988; that year, she flew back from Oxford to Myanmar, after receiving word that her mother had had a stroke. After her mother’s death, she stayed on to lead the country’s democracy struggled, which continued after she was robbed of an election victory in 1990 – and she was put under house arrest.

In all the 20-plus years after that, the country’s military junta let it be known that she was always free to leave the country - except that she would never be allowed to return to her motherland, where she had pledged to restore democracy.

The ‘false choice’ that Suu Kyi was given imposed severe moral dilemmas on her. In 1999, for instance, her husband Michael Aris was diagnosed with prostate cancer – and she was told that he did not have long to live. International leaders petitioned the then military regime asking it to issue Aris a Myanmarese visa for him to meet his wife one last time, but they went unheeded. Evidently, the junta calculated that at some point, Suu Kyi would yield to the emotional pressure to be “a good wife” and a “good mother” – and leave Myanmar to be with her husband.

But knowing that the democracy movement would be snuffed out if she left, and her followers would be victimised, Suu Kyi stayed on – and never got to see Aris, who died three months later.

Which is what invests Suu Kyi’s first overseas travel in 24 years with a measure of poignancy. The once-caged bird is now spreading its wings, but just how much of a leeway her erstwhile captors will give her will be on test. Myanmar's rulers have thus far benefited from a lifting of sanctions that followed their baby steps towards political reform, but if they find their own future under threat from Suu Kyi's enhanced profile, there's the risk that they might be tempted to resort to reflexive old habits.

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