Meeting Myanmar’s Iconic Lady

Published on Tuesday, 04 December 2012

Published by Stephen P. Groff on Tuesday, 04 December 2012

Over the course of our eleven-month “re-engagement” with Myanmar and my three trips to the country since June, I have discussed prospects for the country with literally hundreds of people. In a September op-ed, I quoted Rudyard Kipling who referred to the country as "quite unlike any land you know about" in his 1898 collection Letters from the East and these discussions leave me convinced that this century-old observation holds true. Without exception, everyone I have spoken with over the last year seems to have a powerful attachment to the country – either through direct experience or out of concern for its future. How many other countries draw the rapt attention of such an incredibly diverse group of politicians, academics, businesspeople, journalists, NGOs, development professionals, and bloggers?

Why all the attention? Is it because the country represents the "last frontier" in Southeast Asia? Is it the potential of wealth in this resource-rich land? Is it its strategic location that attracts geopolitical attention? Is it the romantic notion of a lost kingdom returned? Is it the valiant struggle of protesters and their iconic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi? I believe all five of these elements come together to form a powerful elixir that has brought much of the world to the doorstep of this Asian nation. Some may value one of these influences over another but there is no doubt that the combination creates a sort of covetousness not seen in this century. Whether this is a lust for the country’s resources or its many unknowns, it is clear that there is a global infatuation with this land.

In this mix, inevitably it is "The Lady" who captures much imagination. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi first emerged on the world’s conscience in the late 1980’s as a leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement. Decades of house arrest, a Nobel Prize and the sympathy of world leaders meant that she was never far from our mind in the intervening 22 years. My visits to the country have given me the opportunity to meet with President Thein Sein and many of Myanmar’s leaders but the meetings I am most often asked about are those that I had with Aung San Suu Kyi.

My first meeting with Madame Suu Kyi was on a Sunday in mid-August. Parliament was in session, so our meeting took place at her house in Nay Pyi Taw. While I have been fortunate enough in my career to meet with a number of leaders and celebrities, I can’t say that I have ever before met an icon. During the days preceding the meeting, I had filled my brain with facts and figures from our economic and sector work but, somehow, it wasn’t until we were driving from the airport to her house that morning that it dawned on me that this was quite a different sort of meeting from that to which I am normally accustomed. I’m not usually apprehensive but this recognition left me feeling nervous for the first time in quite a while. Pre-meeting banter with colleagues Kunio Senga, Putu Kamayana, Vinnie Wicklein and Sona Shrestha soothed jangling nerves, but as we drove up to her residence I still had no idea what to expect when meeting someone whose image is so seared into our collective consciousness.

We arrived at her house some 20 minutes early (who wants to be late to meet an icon?) and waited outside until the appointed time. Her house in Nay Pyi Taw is one among many in the new "suburbs" of the capital city - comfortable but nondescript. Stepping to the threshold, my first glimpse of Madame Suu Kyi was to see her adjusting teacups and plates on the table in her foyer. Seeing us approach, she stopped and walked briskly to the doorway to greet us. Handshakes were exchanged and introductions made before she ushered us to the table – five of us on one side and she and Dr. Tin Mar Aung (her advisor) on the other. Save some flowers and a picture of her father, the room was functional and largely unadorned – the kind of unlived newness that abounds in Nay Pyi Taw. Madame Suu Kyi had recently returned from her trip to Europe and despite seeming somewhat weary, she was as poised and graceful as one would expect. She was also equally well informed and knowledgeable (she spoke without notes) and I was almost surprised by how “normal” the ensuing conversation was - pleasantries were brief and we were soon into substance.

Much as I might for any minister or government official, I briefed her on ADB’s overall approach to re-engagement and arrears clearance, progress in economic and sector assessments and preparation of our interim country partnership strategy. She in turn welcomed ADB’s re-engagement, highlighting the many challenges faced by the country and the need for development partner support. On arrears clearance, she noted that she understood that the arrears issue needed to be resolved in order for ADB to fully resume operations, but expressed concerns that arrears clearance should not send the message that the government is not accountable for its failure to meet international obligations – a nuanced perspective.

In describing her views on engagement by donors, she emphasized that development efforts should focus on employment creation and empowerment. She also underlined the importance of providing people with opportunities to make decisions on local development priorities, which would promote responsible democratic reforms and reduce dependence on government. This prompted an interesting exchange on local development initiatives from neighboring countries supported by ADB, such as the PNPM Mandiri (National Program for Community Empowerment) in Indonesia. Madame Suu Kyi highlighted the vast regional disparities in terms of income levels and access to social services and infrastructure, and also noted that landlessness due to land acquisition by the government and privileged groups is a major concern. The agriculture sector still remains the backbone of Myanmar’s economy, and investment in this sector is essential to develop the rural areas and address concerns about food security. At the same time, she acknowledged the importance of economic diversification and felt that efforts should be made to strike a healthy balance between the agriculture and industrial sectors.

As I mentioned above, quite a "normal" conversation and not altogether different from that one might have with a senior official or minister in any country – the main difference being that we were sitting across the table from one of recent history’s most celebrated figures. The meeting drew to a close with Madame Suu Kyi largely agreeing with our broad framework and approach to reengagement. She provided some extremely insightful points and suggestions, including the reinforcement of the importance of job creation and rural-urban connectivity, of which we were keen to take note. An hour and fifteen minutes of rather detailed discussion then gave way to a lighter atmosphere. Madame Suu Kyi warmed up particularly to Sona, describing her visits to Nepal as a child while her mother was ambassador to India and then again years later while her husband was doing research. Handshakes and farewells followed and we were back in the car to begin the long journey back to Yangon and an evening flight to Bangkok.

Read related post: Dialogues on Change: Up Close with Aung San Suu Kyi