Immediately upon being freed from house arrest, Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, vowed to continue to fight for human rights and democracy. On 14 November, her first day of freedom after spending more than seven years under house arrest, most of that in solitary confinement, she was greeted by tens of thousands of well-wishers, many shouting ‘We love you Suu!’ in Burmese. Thereupon, she made her way to the headquarters of her National League for Democracy (NLD), in central Rangoon. ‘I am so excited that she is free,’ Mae, a 17-year-old university student in Rangoon, told this writer. ‘She has been under house arrest for most of my life; now, we hope things are going to change here.’
In all initial statements and interviews immediately following her release, Suu Kyi has been very cautious. ‘There’s a conscious attempt not to be provocative and inadvertently upset the generals,’ says Justin Wintle, a British scholar and biographer of Suu Kyi. ‘But her position has not changed: she steadfastly stands by all she has fought for over the years.’ Indeed, Suu Kyi quickly confirmed to members of the NLD that she would ‘continue my efforts to bring about national reconciliation, and I need the support of our people.’The years in detention have certainly not dented Suu Kyi’s popularity. If anything, her time in house arrest has seen her public esteem grow. This time around, in the aftermath of the 7 November polls, far more people came out for a glimpse of the 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate than the last time she was released, in May 2002. This time too, all of them risked long prison terms just by being there. A significant proportion of those in the streets this time were young people, many of them barely aware of the pro-democracy leader’s existence when she was last freed. ‘I wasn’t interested in politics before the elections,’ said Moe Myat, another student from Rangoon. ‘Now I want to learn everything I can about the situation in my country, and Daw Suu can certainly help us change the country for the better.’
Suu Kyi also struck a notably appeasing tone towards the military. She said that she had no bitterness towards those who have held her in detention for more than 15 of the last 21 years, and that she had been well-treated during that time. ‘I hope they [the military] won’t feel threatened by me,’ she said. ‘Popularity is something that comes and goes. I don’t think that anyone should feel threatened by it.’ Thus, the pro-democracy leader seemed keen to offer the military government an olive branch, and has been careful when commenting on the elections – despite the fact that the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party reportedly won convincingly, and all other parties have complained of massive electoral fraud.
The NLD refused to re-register as a political party and was thus barred from standing in the elections. But Suu Kyi led the party’s call for a mass boycott of the polls, saying that they were neither free nor fair, and she has already begun the fight in the High Court to get this decision overturned. This has struck some as premature – the next elections are scheduled to take place only after five years, and many observers feel Suu Kyi would be better off trying to distance herself from the NLD, establishing herself instead as national leader representing all the opposition. ‘Returning to lead the NLD might be seen by the junta as sign that she has not changed, and is as belligerent and unbending as ever,’ said a Western diplomat based in Bangkok, who has covered Burma for more than a decade but declined to be identified.
The steadfast campaigner remains true to her principles, however. ‘I believe in human rights and I believe in the rule of law. I will always fight for these things,’ Suu Kyi said. ‘I want to work with all democratic forces, and I need the support of the people.’
In fact, since her release, Suu Kyi has been meeting with a cross-section of opposition leaders. She has held council with political parties – including the NLD-breakaway party, the National Democratic Force (NDF), which contested the elections – leaders of ethnic groups and members of the NLD youth wing. In the coming weeks, she plans to meet with members of civil society, academics, economists and businesspeople. In this light, she is indeed actively building alliances and coalitions with all opposition movements. ‘We consider her a national leader, and she does not belong to any single group or party. She belongs to the entire nation,’ the NDF spokesman Khin Maung Swe told this writer. A senior NLD leader also said that the party intends to set up a people’s network, to coordinate information and plan any necessary action, noting that in her first meeting with NLD leaders Suu Kyi ‘told us we need to get in touch with the people.’
Suu Kyi is particularly keen to reach out to the country’s young people. One of the first things she wants to do is set up a Twitter account, so that she can keep in touch with Burma’s youth. She also now has her first-ever mobile phone – and may be having trouble getting used to it, a senior NLD official confided. ‘People, even if they have never seen her, they know her name,’ said Bo Kyi, a human-rights activist and former political prisoner. ‘She is the only person who truly represents the nation, including the national minorities.’
This last point is particularly important. Already, Suu Kyi has proposed reconvening a conference of ethnic minorities, as her father, the independence hero General Aung San, did more than sixty years ago. That move led to the Panlong Agreement, in 1947, which set out the need for a federal state. This has never been implemented, however, as only months later Aung San was assassinated along with several other leading politicians.
The issue of the minorities has been intensified recently, with fresh fighting near the border with Thailand. A breakaway group of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which has a ceasefire agreement with the junta, seized polling stations in the border town of Myawaddy, and intense fighting erupted with the Burmese army. More than 30 people are reported to have been killed.
Some 20 ethnic rebel groups currently have ceasefire pacts with the Burmese army. These include the Kachin and Wa, along the border with China, and the Mon near the southern border with Thailand. There has been an uneasy peace in these areas for more than a decade. But recently, these groups have been under pressure from the junta to disarm and join the newly created Border Guard Force under the control of the Burmese army. Most of the armed resistance groups have rejected this and, instead, prepared to resume fighting. ‘We are hoping for peace, but preparing for war,’ the Kachin leader Gauri Zau Seng told this writer recently. This has led to renewed tension in these border areas, with fears of a renewed civil war. Several other groups, including the Karen National Union (KNU) are still waging war against the Burmese army.
This will be one of the key issues the new civilian government will have to tackle in the coming months, after the Parliament elects the new president. In fact, this could be an area in which Suu Kyi could offer important assistance. But her call for a new Panlong Conference might not be welcomed by the junta leaders. ‘Any perceived interference with the ethnic issue by Daw Suu will be seen as a threat and rejected,’ said a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.
‘Let’s speak directly’
All of this raises questions as to why Suu Kyi was released at this time. According to military sources in Naypyidaw, the release was planned for months, but had to wait for the final order from the junta leader, General Than Shwe. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is claiming credit for getting her released, having asked Beijing to intervene. That it did so is highly unlikely, as the issue would be seen as a strictly internal matter, though there is no doubt that the Chinese government was informed of the decision, according to Chinese diplomats.
According to nearly all Burma experts and analysts, Gen Than Shwe never does anything that is not in his interests. ‘Than Shwe is only interested in extending his grip on power and protecting his economic interests and that of his family,’ said Maung Zarni, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, who has had long personal contact with many of the generals and their families. ‘I would not be surprised to see his favourite grandson anointed as the real political successor in the near future – like in North Korea.’
Thus, many fear that Suu Kyi’s release is just a ploy to deflect international attention, and perhaps as a gesture towards the US. During his recent trip to India, President Obama was quite strident in calling on New Delhi to do more to pressure Burma’s generals to reform. At the same time, the worry for many is that if the regime feels threatened, the generals will simply lock Suu Kyi up once again.
Currently, Suu Kyi’s release has come with no restrictions, according to her lawyers. But one of those lawyers, U Kyi Win, told this writer that although there were no formal conditions placed on her freedom, her movement could nevertheless still be restricted, as it was at times during her previous stints of freedom. ‘The test will come when she tries to travel up-country to meet people, especially in Mandalay, when tens of thousands are likely to come to hear her.’
The years of detention have weakened neither Suu Kyi’s resolve nor her charisma; she remains dedicated to achieving a democratic Burma. ‘What we’ve always said is that dialogue is not a competition,’ she told this writer in an interview at the NLD headquarters more than seven years ago, shortly before she was detained. As she told journalists shortly after her release, ‘I am for national reconciliation. I am for dialogue. Whatever authority I have, I will use it to that end. I hope people will support me.’ The best way forward, she added, was to sit down with Gen Than Shwe: ‘Let’s speak to each other directly.’
‘The junta can cow everyone but not Aung San Suu Kyi,’ said Win Min, a US-based Burma scholar. But for many, this is no Mandela moment, despite the fervent wishes that the recent moves could indicate a new era. ‘Things will not change, the military will remain in power, and nothing will get better,’ said Hkun Htun, a Shan teacher in the north of the country. ‘We have had our hopes raised time and time again, only to have them dashed by the junta – why should anything be different this time?’
~ Larry Jagan is a freelance journalist and Burma specialist based in Bangkok.