Neighbors Split on Release

Several of Burma's neighbors welcome the opposition leader's release; others are cautious.

assk305.jpg Aung San Suu Kyi is surrounded by reporters as she leaves NLD headquarters in Rangoon, Nov. 16, 2010.
Human rights-wary neighbors of Burma have cautiously welcomed or remained silent over the release of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, fearing criticism of their own actions to squash dissent.

Many of Burma's fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states, such as the Philippines and Thailand, hailed the release as a positive move, but others such as Vietnam and Laos made brief comments or just stayed mum.

China, which was among a few nations which welcomed Burma's much-criticized Nov. 7 elections, played down the freedom for the Nobel laureate.

Some of Burma's neighbors are fearful of provoking the junta and exacerbating issues that have the potential to spill over into their borders, analysts said.

Burma has a long history of ethnic conflicts which have led to countries such as Thailand shouldering a huge flow of refugees.

“The safest move for any country in the region is to just be quiet about her release,” in line with the 10-member ASEAN's group's general principle of noninterference, said Jared Genser, president of the Washington-based Freedom Now.

“Frankly, given the negative externalities blowing out of Burma into the neighboring countries, antagonizing the regime is probably not top on their list of things that they would want to do right now.”

Meddling in internal affairs

Genser said that Burma’s "nondemocratic" neighbors, which rarely bow to international pressure on human rights abuses and other matters of personal freedom, felt any reaction could be seen as meddling in their neighbor’s affairs.

“Particularly for [ASEAN members] Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam … they would tend to respect that principle more because they themselves have internal problems which they do not want other members of ASEAN or the international community to be focusing on,” he said.

Cambodia, for example, said Burma's recently held elections, although criticized as a sham by Western powers and rights groups, signaled the beginning of a multiparty system in the country that has been ruled by the military for half a century.

"It is correct to say that the election and democracy in Burma came a bit late, but at least the country has a parliament that consists of members from different parties.  This is a positive starting step, and hould be encouraged," Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.

But Ke Sovannarath, an MP from exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy's party, said that Ang San Suu Kyi's release "is a strong message to all other authoritarian states such as Cambodia."

Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail by a Cambodian municipal court for spreading disinformation after he accused Vietnam of encroaching on Cambodian land.

'Three decades in prison'

Dissident Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do highlighted the rights problems at home as he welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom.

"My heart is with you on this day, for I too have spent almost three decades in prison and internal exile simply for seeking democracy for my people, and I am still under house arrest in my monastery in Saigon," he said.

The Philippines was the most vocal among Burma's ASEAN partners in pushing for reforms, including the release of Burma's remaining 2,000-odd political prisoners.

"Much more must be done for Myanmar [Burma] to prove it is serious about pursuing its road map to democracy," said Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

"Other political prisoners have not been freed, and the recently concluded election has not been viewed as credible," he said.

Kelley Currie, a senior fellow at the Project 2049 Institute in Washington, saw a noticeable split in the reactions of democratic and non-democratic countries in the region.

“You’re seeing kind of a typical response. You saw these governments basically saying that these elections were a step forward and [remaining] fairly quiet on Aung San Suu Kyi’s release,” she said.

Democracy 'road map'

But China faces greater pressure from the international community in light of its growing role in the region and influence over the Burmese military junta, which has yet to react to Aung San Suu Kyi's call for genuine dialogue for reforms.

In a brief bulletin after her release, Beijing's official news agency said that the “noted political figure” has been freed after “confinement to her residence.”

The Chinese government said it was confident Burma's ruling military junta would "continue advancing the seven-point road map plan" to bring democracy to the reclusive state.

“Right now China has its hands full on the human rights front, and in fact China now has the distinction, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, of detaining the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate in the form of Liu Xiaobo,” Genser said.

“Welcoming her release, particularly when they hold Liu Xiaobo, would strike me as not the wisest move on their part,” he said.

Some Chinese democracy campaigners compared political restrictions and rights abuses in Burma and China.

“China faces a similar problem as Burma—that is, the problem of ending a dictatorship and embarking on the road to democracy, freedom, and human rights," said Zeng Ning, a democracy activist in China's southwest Guizhou Province.

China-based blogger Pu Fei said: “A trend has begun, and it is unstoppable. China is now the only country in the world where a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is being jailed.”

Attention to actions

Currie said that while Aung San Suu Kyi’s release does not place much pressure on China internally, Beijing is likely to pay attention to her actions.

Among her calls since being released was seeking a resolution to the long-running ethnic conflicts in Burma, an issue that is of concern to China, which is worried over stability along its border.

“If she’s out there talking to the ethnic groups and advocating for a genuine settlement with them, that should be something that should cause the policymakers in Beijing to take notice,” Currie said.

Currie said that Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nov. 17 visit to an AIDS care center in the former capital of Rangoon was also likely meant to send a message to the junta as well as China’s leaders.

“It’s for domestic consumption inside Burma, certainly. That’s why she’s doing it. But there is a little bit of a message to China there too.

Reported by Joshua Lipes with contributions from RFA language services.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.