What Now For Suu Kyi?

Without a political vehicle, Burma's democracy icon may face an uphill task turning the tables on the generals.
by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
2010-11-13
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Suu Kyi waves at the gate of her house in front of cheering supporters in Rangoon, Nov. 13.
Suu Kyi waves at the gate of her house in front of cheering supporters in Rangoon, Nov. 13.
AFP

Burma's ruling generals may have taken a gamble when they freed Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. But her release also underlines the junta's confidence that the risks of any backlash may be limited.

Their biggest trumpcard is the ban they have imposed on the 65-year old leader's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), leaving her without any political vehicle to face off with the junta.

In an initial show of strength, Suu Kyi drew several thousand supporters on her weekend release and defiantly signaled in her speech that she has not lost her fire in the pursuit of democracy.

Hours later, the Nobel Prize winner held a meeting with NLD top brass at her residence and vowed to visit the NLD headquarters and speak to members.   

It is not known how much leeway the generals will give Suu Kyi before using the law to clamp down on the NLD, which was forced to disband for boycotting the Nov. 7 elections. A good benchmark is the crowd she garners when she moves around freely.

The NLD is also split, with a breakway faction having contested the elections under the banner of the National Democratic Force, the largest opposition party in the polls.

Will the NDF members rejoin the NLD or work closely with Suu Kyi? Or will Suu Kyi accept them into her ranks?

The NDF had expected to sweep many of the urban seats, especially in the Rangoon area, but were robbed of victory following charges that the junta stuffed ballot boxes with "advance" votes.

Mistaken view

Although Suu Kyi's release came at the end of her latest term of detention, the junta could have extended her house arrest by using various excuses just as they did previously.

“For anyone who might mistakenly view this release as a sign of change, the international community should recall that Ms. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest three times previously -– in the mid-1990s and early 2000s -- and nothing fundamentally changed in the country," reminded Freedom Now President Jared Genser.

One reason cited by pundits for her release is that the junta wanted to ease rising protests over the elections, which were criticized as a sham in the absence of independent monitors and  foreign media.

“Her release is a hollow gesture to appease the regime’s detractors, not a sign of political reform,” said Aung Din, who was with Suu Kyi during Burma's 1988 popular democracy uprising.

“The international community needs to continue to pressure the regime to secure her safety, prevent her re-arrest as well as demand the immediate and unconditional release of all remaining 2,200 political prisoners,” said Aung Din, now the executive director of the US Campaign for Burma.

Suu Kyi's freedom may also set the pace for some relaxation of sanctions by Western powers which, the junta knows all too well, are eager to check China's increasing role in the exploitation of Burma's vast natural resources and rising regional strategic importance.

China was the only notable power that backed the Burmese elections, which it cited as part of the junta's "roadmap" for democracy.

"The Burmese have used the issue of China in their analysis of U.S. attitudes toward that regime," said David Steinberg, professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, at a congressional hearing last year.

"Weakest link"

He said that Burmese military intelligence had highlighted the interest of the U.S. in regime change in Burma because they thought Burma "was the weakest link in the U.S.' containment policy toward China."

While the U.S. concern is focused on human rights, the Burmese perception could be designed to, and have reinforced, the importance to the Chinese of support to the Burmese regime and thus increased Chinese assistance both economically and militarily, Steinberg said.

Suu Kyi's release also comes at a critical political transition. The full results of the elections have not been announced and the first elected government in 50 years has not yet been formed.

Military strongman Than Shwe, Suu Kyi's arch rival, did not run in the election and may take a new role as president, a post created by the 2008 constitution. 

In the last elections in 1990, Suu Kyi's NLD swept to victory but it was not allowed to take power.

If Suu Kyi, who has no seat in the new parliament, drums up adequate support and is able to seize on the rising protests over election irregularities, the new government to be led by the pro-junta political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), may be in trouble.

The USDP secured a majority of seats in both houses of Parliament, according to the latest official results.

Generals' tolerance

There is no lack of issues for Suu Kyi in her attempt to win support if her criticism is tolerated by the generals who are expected to run the new government from behind the scenes.  

Ethnic minority troubles continue to brew, the economy is in a shambles and poverty remains a key problem.

It will be particularly interesting to watch how Burma's Southeast Asian neighbours, who have vowed to give priority to human rights, strike a balance between supporting the Burmese administration and helping Suu Kyi address critical rights and other issues. 

“Our ultimate goal, as it always has been, should be to encourage Burma to become a responsible member of the world community, and to end the isolation of its people so that they can live in economic prosperity, under an open political system,” said U.S. Senator Jim Webb.

He is the only American politician ever to have met with General Than Shwe and one of the few political figures to have met both the general and Suu Kyi.

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