Dialogues on Change: Up Close with Aung San Suu Kyi

Published on Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Published by Stephen P. Groff on Wednesday, 12 December 2012

My second meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was in early November. I had returned to the country to meet with officials and discuss next steps following our Board’s approval of our interim country partnership strategy. Following a variety of meetings in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw, we returned to her residence on the outskirts of the capital. Madame Suu Kyi again greeted us at the entrance to her home and ushered us to the same table. The exhaustion of long travels had disappeared and she welcomed us with an energy and exuberance that had eluded the first meeting. We posed for photos but (as often happens during such moments) our camera failed to work (fortunately, it resumed functioning and we were able to document the visit at the end of the meeting). Difficult discussions on the budget were underway in the Parliament and she explained the challenges of working in an institution with limited capacity.

We discussed how the focus of our strategy reflects guidance from our first meeting with her, particularly with respect to job creation and rural-urban connectivity. She was again interested in the mechanics of the arrears clearance operation. Reflecting an understanding of the latest developments in the aid industry, she suggested that due consideration be given to aid transparency so that Parliament could better monitor utilization of aid. She also asked for support to regional levels of government so as to facilitate regional and rural development, help address regional and ethnic conflict, and support the democratization process.

In the discussion, Madame Suu Kyi focused on the need to address development gaps between rural and urban areas as critical to achieving sustainable and inclusive growth, as well as stability and peace in conflict affected minority areas. She shared her vision of a “new” approach to agricultural development in Myanmar—essentially one that is based on lessons learned from other countries. Such an approach would be technology driven, environmentally sustainable, address food security, respond to new markets (organic, etc.), focus on agricultural SMEs, and provide incentives for younger generations to return to their ancestral land after graduating from university. She advocated for support for the renovation and upgrading of the Yangon General Hospital and Yangon University, as well as support for the legislature and judiciary (Suu Kyi is the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on the Rule of Law).

Her thinking on a number of these areas had clearly evolved since our meeting in August and while this session was only half as long as the first, she communicated quite a few specific ideas and proposals. She seemed pleased with the general direction of ADB’s interim country partnership strategy, and very supportive of ADB’s approach. She had to excuse herself early as Parliament was in session and her presence was needed.

I suppose that I still struggle trying to describe these meetings and fully grasp Madame Suu Kyi’s intellectual depth and personal warmth juxtaposed against the business-like atmosphere in our meetings. She is an impressive person – one who seems incredibly comfortable in her notoriety and yet humble and gracious, almost normal. At the end of the day, I guess this just reminds us that there is very little that separates us from each other, icon or not. It has been a great privilege to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on behalf of the ADB – it is not often that such opportunities arise – and I look forward to continuing the dialogue with her, as well as with other leaders of the country – one that remains "quite unlike any land you know about."

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