Published — Sunday 2 December 2012
Last update 1 December 2012 10:13 pm
For Aung San Suu Kyi the democracy activist, the 25-year struggle against Myanmar's former army rulers was a largely black-and-white affair — a clear fight for freedom against one of the world's most oppressive regimes.
But Suu Kyi the elected lawmaker is finding it a lot more difficult to pick her battles, and she's a lot more pragmatic when she does.
With the long-ruling junta gone and a reformist government in place, the political prisoner-turned-parliamentarian is now part of a nascent government dealing with a complex transition to democracy — even as she maintains her role as opposition leader.
This week, Suu Kyi moved to settle a dispute that has festered in the northwest for years: controversy over a military-backed copper mine in Letpadaung that has raised environmental concern and forced villagers from their land with little compensation.
Suu Kyi made a two-day trip to the region to hear people's grievances and try to help mediate a resolution. Hours before she arrived Thursday, security forces launched a brutal crackdown on protesters that was the biggest of its kind since President Thein Sein took office last year.
Police used water cannons, tear gas and smoke bombs to break up an 11-day occupation of the mine project. Protesters saw their makeshift shelters ablaze. A nurse at a Monywa hospital said 27 monks and one other person were admitted there to be treated for burns.
Addressing a crowd of more than 10,000 people in the nearby town of Monywa on Friday, Suu Kyi criticized security forces but said protesters may have to accept a compromise for the sake of national honor.
Myanmar's former army junta made past deals without taking into account the wishes of the people, she said, but such commitments must be honored "so that the country's image will not be hurt."
In other comments during her trip to Monywa, Suu Kyi said she would work for the country's benefit but called on people to be "open-minded."
"To walk the democratic system is a tough path," she said. "It's not straight." Though mine protesters may not be satisfied by those words, they at least know that they have Suu Kyi's attention. The Nobel Peace laureate has gotten less involved in other conflicts.
In April, Suu Kyi got a taste of the new political world she was entering shortly after her National League for Democracy party won almost all of the several dozen seats up for grabs in the country's historic by-election.