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Aung San Suu Kyi, A De Gaulle Moment For Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi attending a parliamentary session in Naypyidaw on March 29
Aung San Suu Kyi attending a parliamentary session in Naypyidaw on March 29
Bruno Philip


YANGON — Good luck Aung San Suu Kyi! The hardest part still lies ahead. Such a message might sound exaggerated, even inappropriate, when you think that this woman spent 15 years under house arrest, having always shown tremendous determination against the junta's generals.

Her fight has indeed paid off at last, as she has gained the paradoxical support of the military, who finally and rather unexpectedly decided to let Myanmar move forward on the path towards unprecedented political reforms. But it's also true that this is the moment that new roadblocks might start to appear after this internationally renowned figure came to power on April 1.

Suu Kyi, known as "The Lady," is surrounded by an aura that virtually no other world leader has, and the Burmese people's expectations are high. Perhaps too high. What is happening in Myanmar right now is reminiscent of the "Obamania" that hit the United States after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election. And as such, it risks provoking its own share of disillusions and frustrations.

Even though she could not become president herself — the Constitution barred her because her children are British citizens — Suu Kyi will still lead the government. The new president, Htin Kyaw, is one of her close friends and is expected to follow her orders.

Initially, the Lady was supposed to act as Minister for Foreign Affairs, Education, Electricity and Energy, as well as leading the President's Office. A portfolio that amounted to a "Super Ministry" more powerful than the rest, thus giving her a prime minister-like role. Finally, on April 4, she gave up Energy and Education, but took on the job as the president's spokeswoman.

Could the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner be losing touch with the real world? At 70, how will she physically and psychologically manage to deal with so many important issues and be up to the challenge facing one of Asia's poorest countries, marred by more than half-a-century of dictatorship and endless internal wars?

Those close to her say that it'll take an iron lady to put her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in order. Many among her opponents and some of her disciples highlight Suu Kyi's autocratic temperament.

Like other Asian women of power, all heiresses or widows of murdered charismatic leaders, she hasn't prepared her legacy, nor has she favored the emergence inside her party of future leaders capable of taking up the torch.

It was nearly 28 years ago that Burmese troops fired their machine guns on the protesters in Yangon, ultimately propelling Aung San Suu Kyi to the helm of a pro-democracy movement. She was of course her father's daughter. General Aung San, the tutelary figure of the Burmese independence movement, was killed in his office in July 1947 by a commando group bankrolled by one of his rivals. That was a few months before the British occupier's Union Jack ceased to wave above Myanmar.

Nobody can deny that the Lady has gained a moral rigor and an acute sense of her country's destiny. One of her fellow students at Oxford, Anne Pasternak Slater, a niece of Boris Pasternak (who wrote the 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago), describes her as a person of "touching naivety and genuine innocence," who nonetheless has an "uptight" personality.

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Family portrait with Suu Kyi (in white) taken shortly before her father's assassination in 1947 — Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1990, after her first liberation, she had become more mature, and was under no illusion regarding the path ahead of her, anticipating with lucidity how hard the fight would be. "It's rather normal for authoritarian regimes to be uncompromising for long periods of time," she admitted at the time in a Thai newspaper, Nation. "You just need to keep trying harder."

Without a doubt, she has always been remarkably perseverant. But the task ahead of her remains formidable. She'll need to negotiate with the ethnic guerrilla groups that are still fighting against the Burmese army. She'll have to find common ground with the Chinese, formerly allied to the junta, and who shamelessly covet her country's natural resources.

She'll also have to continue economic reforms in a corrupted business environment in which skirting the law for one's personal gain is accepted practice. There's also the drug and jade trafficking, and the fight against poverty, in a country where 70% of the population are farmers, the vast majority of whom still use wood to cook.

Rising inter-religious conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims is also a major threat to stability. And last but not least, Suu Kyi will need to define a modus vivendi with an almighty military that still controls the most important ministries: defense, interior and borders.

In the 1990s, answering an American congressman who asked about her vision for Myanmar, should she ever rise to power, she said: "It isn't my vision. I'll be happy to be a leader with symbolic power. I'm not Myanmar."

After all this time, everything leads us to believe that as years went by, Aung San Suu Kyi developed with her country and her people the same sort of relationship that Charles De Gaulle had with France and the French. The way she's led her party, and the way she could lead "her" government, acting as as an unbendable teacher, unquestioned by lawmakers or partners who fear and worship her at the same time, is a strength that could become a weakness. In the meantime, she's become the incarnation of Myanmar. That may actually make the challenge even harder.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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