YANGON – Aung San Suu Kyi may be one of the world’s most renowned political activists, but when it comes to reviving her impoverished homeland, observers say the opposition leader will need help.
The Nobel laureate spent 15 of the last 23 years under house arrest, a sacrifice that has earned her deep respect both at home and abroad, as shown by the reception given to her in the United States this week.
But the long years of isolation have also left the Oxford-educated democracy champion sorely lacking in the political experience necessary to tackle Myanmar’s myriad challenges as the country braces for further unprecedented change in the run up to 2015 elections and beyond, analysts say.
Many of the senior figures in her political party also spent years languishing in prison.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has a distinguished leader and massive popular support “but between the two, it has nothing”, said one foreign diplomat.
“It is not a party of elites and it is not a mass party, because it has no policies,” he said. “There is every chance that it will win in 2015. But it will not be the great revolution day.”
There is little doubt that Myanmar’s opposition leader is already in the process of a stunning metamorphosis.
She was the junta’s nemesis, but Suu Kyi’s journey into parliament has seen her agree to work with the reforming ex-generals who took the helm of a new regime in March last year.
However, in the lower house of parliament Suu Kyi and her 41 NLD colleagues had little to say on recent economic debates, including on a foreign investment law seen as crucial in helping drag the long-isolated nation out of poverty.
They “are not experienced in business” said Myat Thin Aung, vice chairman of Yoma bank.
While many of their rivals in the army-backed ruling party ran thriving businesses under the last government and are now “more experienced” on economic issues, “in the opposition many of them were in jail”, he said.
“They have no vision in economy… They do listen but they don’t understand the whole process,” said Myat Thin Aung, who is also a member of the country’s Union of Myanmar Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Even within the ranks of the opposition – where references to Suu Kyi are steeped with reverence and gratitude — there is concern about how the party can meet the enormous hopes and expectations of Myanmar’s long-suffering people.
The higher echelons of the NLD are dominated by many of the same figures that have run the party for two decades.
Some are in their eighties and while lauded for their long struggle for democracy, some observers also believe they are hampering the rise of a new generation who may be better able to steer the country towards prosperity.
NLD MPs insist they have enough expertise within their ranks to manage the economy and negotiate the political hurdles ahead, while Suu Kyi has also expressed confidence in the abilities of the ageing pro-democracy old guard.
But younger party members will undoubtedly be needed to take the helm when the Nobel laureate, who is herself 67 years old, steps back from the political fray.
“The NLD should reform itself to give the youth some participation in the political process,” said Zaw Thet Htwe, a journalist and former political prisoner, who was released in January in one of several amnesties by President Thein Sein.
This is all the more imperative, he said, because of a constitutional rule that bars “The Lady” from taking the top government role because she was married to a British man and has two sons who are both foreign nationals.
“Suu Kyi cannot be president because of the constitution. We must drop this idea. It is not possible,” he told AFP.
Observers believe it is now crucial for the democracy champion to recognize this shortfall in expertise – and to make up for it.
The next major political milestone will be the 2015 election, but beyond that new political heavyweights will need to emerge to take the mantle from the veterans of Myanmar’s democracy movement.
“We need to look beyond – 2020, 2030,” said Aung Tun Htet, a respected Yangon intellectual.
“As years pass, some of the main characters will gradually fade away. The question then is how do we ensure that the generation that are coming up can work together.”