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Aung San Suu Kyi and Martin McGuinness – not such an odd couple

2012 July 29
by Paul Vallely

We were never told what David and Samantha Cameron gave Aung San Suu Kyi for lunch at Chequers. But we do know what the Queen was offered the day she famously shook hands with the former IRA leader Martin McGuinness. The traditional Irish menu concluded with a sweet honeycomb toffee known inIrelandas yellow man.

It was bold of McGuinness to have allowed that. Yellow Man is the kind of abusive nickname with which he might be labelled by the three hardline dissident Republican groups who on Friday announced that they were merging to reform the IRA. It was a clear attempt to undermine the power-sharing government in which McGuinness – once known as The Butcher of the Bogside – has become deputy First Minister. This new IRA criticised the Good Friday peace agreement negotiated by McGuinness and the Sinn Féin leadership saying “the Irish people have been sold a phoney peace, rubber-stamped by a token legislature in Stormont”.  Such are the perils of Sinn Féin’s retreat from the purity of armed struggle into the messy reality of day-to-day politics.

Something similar is happening now to Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who became a global symbol of human rights through almost a quarter of a century of imprisonment and isolation as the stubborn standard-bearer for the values of democracy against the military dictatorship of her nativeBurma. The high expectations her heroism created among some supporters now seem unsustainable as she makes the transition, aged 67, from long-term political prisoner to an agent of change inBurma’s embryonic reform process.

Suu Kyi is facing a backlash from fellow campaigners dismayed at her silence over the plight of the 800,000 Rohingya people whom the United Nations describe as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. In her first parliamentary speech last week she called for laws to protect the rights of her nation’s ethnic minorities. But many previous supporters, including Human Rights Watch, criticised her for not mentioning the Rohingya by name.

Being locked up in house arrest, or locked into the certainties of armed struggle, was in a perverse way easier for Sui Ki and McGuinness alike. Principled opposition is a lot less complicated than mainstream politics. But the latter is no less risky.  At the back of Martin McGuinness’s mind must be the example of Michael Collins, the leader of the IRA in its war againstBritainfrom 1918 to 1921, who went toLondonto negotiate the treaty on Irish independence and was murdered by extremists on his return toIreland.

Real politics is a delicate balancing act as McGuinness has shown. He followed his royal handshake with a strong attack on David Cameron for failing to move the peace process forward. But though he was joined in his attack onWestminsterby First Minister Peter Robinson, the Unionist leader wants McGuinness investigated by any forthcoming murder investigation into the Bloody Sunday killings. Yet thoughNorthern Irelandremains a deeply divided society its politics is more stable than at any time for a generation. Any potential explosions will be political rather than physical.

A similar complexity embroils the heroine ofBurma. The majority of ethnic Burmese are Buddhists and many deeply resent the steady influx of the Muslim Rohingya fromBangladeshin recent decades.  Some critics have accused Aung San Suu Kyi of sharing that resentment; others say she does not want to alienate the majority community as the next presidential election approaches. “One has to be suspicious or concerned about what her views are,” Brad Adams,Asiadirector of Human Rights Watch, has said.

These are ignoble accusations against a woman who walked, alone and unarmed, directly toward the guns of a military junta – and who has demonstrated a far-sighted political vision and resolute personal integrity, at considerable personal cost, over two decades. The criticism of both her and Martin McGuiness misunderstands the true nature of the accommodation which is an essential part of mainline politics.

Compromise is not necessarily about sacrificing principle; it can be about timing and the order in which things are done. Politics is the art of the possible because it understands the psychology of process not just outcome. Adroit politicians must be good listeners if they are to find ways to reach agreements with opponents. Compromise is about forfeiting interests rather than ideals.  It is not about dirty deals but rather is essential to the proper functioning of a democracy.

And it can demand more courage than the easy self-righteousness of opposition. The great heroes of our times, individuals like Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Aung San Suu Kyi, have all been brave. They have all shown a magnanimity characterised by an extraordinary lack of bitterness. And they have all been shrewd political pragmatists. “I strive to be as practical as my father was,” Suu Kyi told the British Parliament, recalling that when a British general accused him of switching from the Japanese to the British side during World War II just because the British were winning, he replied, “It wouldn’t be much good coming to you if you weren’t, would it?”

There will be many who would not want to place Martin McGuinness in such company but there can be no doubt of his courage nor the prescience of his vision. Shaking-hands with the Queen was a deliberate and symbolic way of offering the hand of friendship to all the unionists ofUlster. “We now operate in a new context,” he said. “Dialogue has replaced conflict. Respect has replaced mistrust.” For that to increase, inIrelandandBurmaalike, requires new thinking, new ideas and the dawn of new political realities. And that will mean further compromise.

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