RANGOON—After 48 years under an oppressive and often brutal military dictatorship, the Burmese people know better than to think the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest is going to change their lives any time soon, if at all.
But now there’s a glimmer of hope that she may be willing to reconcile with the government and try to work together to improve peoples’ economic prospects.
One third of the country’s 55 million people are mired in grinding poverty, living a day-to-day existence. For many of the rest, it’s not much better.
“I’m going to work for national reconciliation,” Suu Kyi told her first news conference. “That is a very important thing. There is nobody I cannot talk to. I am prepared to talk with anyone. I have no personal grudge toward anybody.”
It was a message many here were hoping to hear, for it may have signified a departure from her steadfast resistance to compromise with a regime that annulled her election as the nation’s leader in 1990 and kept her under house arrest most of the time since.
An indicator of her new-found flexibility may be her decision, shortly before her release, to drop her long-held opposition to foreign tourists visiting, and bringing their money to, Burma. This after her National League for Democracy had refused to take part in Burma’s tainted Nov. 7 elections and urged people not to vote.
“This situation has to change. We need change.
The regime is under no obligation to respond to Suu Kyi, but many Burmese are hoping it will.
“The government should approach her and offer her some kind of role,” a businessman told me. “This situation has to change. We need change. We need to move the country forward.”
Specifically, people in the streets want the West to lift economic sanctions against Burma, and they know it will happen only if Suu Kyi approves, such is her influence in Western capitals. It is one of her trump cards in dealing with the government.
“If people really want sanctions lifted, I will consider this,” she said at her news conference. “This is the time Burma needs help.”
The sanctions were imposed after Suu Kyi’s election was disallowed but have had no effect on the junta’s human rights policies or the plight of some 2,200 political prisoners. If anything, the sanctions left an economic vacuum that China has been more than happy to fill.
Lifting the sanctions would renew trade with the West, open the way for western aid and investment and, according to economists, boost employment in Burma and help it start catching up with its Southeast Asia neighbors. Right now, the average income in Burma is little more than a dollar a day.
What would entice Suu Kyi to acquiesce on sanctions is anyone’s guess. But the country’s newly elected civilian government, though dominated by former generals, may find a way to open a new chapter in relations with the daughter of the country’s revered founding father. The new government won’t take effect until early February.
No more orders
“As civilians, they will need to stop giving orders and listen to the people,” my businessman friend said.
“The government is in a no-win situation with Suu Kyi,” a political analyst told me. “It had to release her because there was no more reason to hold her. And if it arrests her again, there is bound to be trouble in the streets.”
The outpouring of support for Suu Kyi demonstrated her popularity is undiminished. Thousands packed the streets for her initial public appearances, many of them young people hoping she can force change for the better. Others flocked to satellite television to watch the images on the BBC and the outlawed Democratic Voice of Burma.
State-controlled Myanmar Television carried a brief announcement of Suu Kyi’s release, without pictures. But the New Light of Myanmar, the regime’s mouthpiece newspaper, said she was freed by police officials who told her “that they want the nation to be peaceful and tranquil in the future and that they stand ready to give her any help she needs.”
Whether the regime will try to confound her plans to travel around the country for town meetings is yet to be seen. She insisted before she was released that there could be no limits on her freedom of movement.
In the back of her supporters’ minds is the “Depayin massacre,” on May 30, 2003, during Suu Kyi’s previous period of freedom. Her convoy and supporters were attacked by government-backed thugs during a countryside visit. As many as 70 were killed. Suu Kyi narrowly escaped unhurt in what her aides described as an assassination attempt.
I don’t think anything will change until the top two generals (Than Shwe and Maung Aye) are dead.
Senior General Than Shwe, Burma’s dictator, has never shown a willingness to compromise with his opponents. Perhaps he will go along if the new civilian government suggests talking with Suu Kyi. But make no mistake: the army and its feared intelligence apparatus will still pull the strings.
“I hate to say this,” a friend close to the army told me. “But I don’t think anything will change until the top two generals (Than Shwe and Maung Aye) are dead.”
Than Shwe is 75. Maung Aye is 72.
Aung San Suu Kyi is 65.
TYLER CHAPMAN was in Burma witnessing the Nov. 7 general elections, the first in two decades, and during the subsequent release from house arrest of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.