Litmus Test for Democracy

Concerns arise over the security of Burma's democracy icon ahead of her trip to the provinces.
By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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Aung San Suu Kyi (C) talks to reporters at her residence in Rangoon, June 2, 2011.
Aung San Suu Kyi (C) talks to reporters at her residence in Rangoon, June 2, 2011.

Burma's budding democracy will face its biggest test as early as this month when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi attempts to travel for the first time outside of Rangoon since her November release from house arrest.

A key question is whether the 65-year-old Nobel laureate, who has confined herself to Burma's largest city since her release, will be allowed by the newly elected government to visit the provinces and meet the people freely without any threat to her security.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the last two decades in detention or under house arrest. The few times that she  traveled to rural areas during her brief spells of freedom, the previous ruling military generals harassed her.

Assassination attempt

In 2003 particularly, her visit to Depayin in northern Burma which drew large crowds was marred by what many believed was an assassination attempt against her by groups linked to the military junta.

Her motorcade was attacked by pro-junta thugs, resulting in the death of 70 of her supporters in what is known today as the Depayin massacre. She was thrown back into house arrest after the bloody incident.

The democracy leader, who has spent most of her time doing social work since her unconditional release on Nov. 13, plans to make her much-awaited provincial trip as early as June 22, just three days after her 66th birthday.

The immediate concerns among many are whether she will be safe and whether the government can guarantee her security.

Experts say this will be a crucial test for the civilian government of General-turned-President Thein Sein installed in March.

Burma's government, many believe, remains under the tight grip of the same generals who stifled political freedom and have been blamed for blatant human rights abuses.

Repeat of 2003 attack?

The trip by Aung San Suu Kyi will show whether the regime "really has changed its stripes at all," said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

After confining herself mostly to Rangoon in the last seven months, her trip outside the city is going to be "a far different matter," he said.

Priscilla Clapp, a former senior U.S. diplomat who served in Burma, does not rule out a repeat of the 2003 attack on the 65-year-old widow, known simply as "The Lady" to her fellow Burmese.

At that time, "large numbers of people came out and spooked the military government, and they attacked her and created an excuse to put her back in detention," she said.

"I certainly do not rule out that scenario," said Clapp, now a consultant to the New York-based Asia Society.

"If the crowds turn out to be large and they feel that it is a threat to the stability of the new government, they will create an incident," said the former U.S. charge d'affaires to Burma.

In mid-May, Aung San Suu Kyi said she hoped to launch her travel "within the next two months" as she spoke during a joint press conference in Rangoon with a visiting senior U.S. diplomat.

But Win Tin, a leader in her National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said she would likely begin her provincial tour on June 22, according to the Irrawaddy, an online magazine run by Burmese exile journalists.

Government mum

Burma's government has not publicly discussed security protection for Aung San Suu Kyi,  but U.S. officials and lawmakers have made clear to the Burmese authorities that the government must  bear responsibility for her security.

But Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters are not taking any chances.

“In the interests of security, Suu Kyi will let the government know about her trip and provide travel dates, places, and times,” Win Tin said.

"However, that does not mean that she is asking for permission to travel. She is not,” he said.

It is believed that Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD youth network will help shield her during her trip. The network was formed earlier this year at her request.

“We can only guard her with manpower, because we don't have any authority to act officially,” Phyo Min Thein, a leader of the Network, told The Irrawaddy.

Some foreign diplomats in Rangoon have suggested that it would be safer if they and journalists also joined her trip to the provinces.

"We cannot take a chance," said one diplomat. "The government should know that the whole world in watching."





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