Jaundiced towards the Junta: what freeing Suu Kyi really means

Burma's military thugs undoubtedly want something in return for releasing perfect hostage Aung San Suu Kyi, but world leaders who have used her fame to preach democracy must now make sure the generals find no reason to re-arrest her

She may be small, delicate, beautiful and perhaps even fragile, but Aung San Suu Kyi is the embodiment of what Vaclav Havel once called the “power of the powerless”, and that is why she has been such a threat to Burma’s military junta. That threat has not diminished, which is why the world should not suddenly embrace the generals.

Amnesty International urges us for good reason to not be fooled by the weekend’s much welcomed event.

It was undeniably moving to watch Aung San Suu Kyi stand on a platform elevating her to the height of the top of the fence that has imprisoned her for most of the past two decades. The crowd took half an hour to quiet so their hero’s soft voice could finally be heard, and the signs read “We love Su”. As she garlanded her hair in trademark fashion with flowers offered from amongst her adoring supporters, the world was again treated to the prism through which it has so long viewed Burma.

Now precariously difficult tasks await.

At her first speech she talked of reconciliation and dialogue, for which she implored the people of Burma – ethnic minorities included – to come together. She restated her belief in human rights and the rule of law – goals to which she vowed to remain true.

Aung San Suu Kyi has not been cowed by the military, and the olive branch she extended to them on her release is proof of that. While not entirely appropriate to compare apartheid South Africa with contemporary Burma, there was an undeniable ‘Mandela moment’ in Saturday’s newly freed prisoner’s refusal to be vitriolic about her thuggish captors.

She and Mandela, and others who have been imprisoned for their conscience and injustices to their fellow nationals, are symbols of the hopes of nations, but Burma’s struggle for democracy is particularly complicated because there is no actual momentum underway towards a structural political transformation.

The November 7 elections attest to that.

They are also arguably the reason for the release of the woman Justin Wintle called The Perfect Hostage in his 2007 book.

She was indeed perfect for keeping alive the National League for Democracy – the movement she founded which then morphed into a political party but was split over whether to compete in the recent general’s election. Because the party didn’t participate it is now no longer officially recognised. What recognition in a sham election process actually means is debatable. Suu Kyi did not seem fazed.

The generals however may be. They explain nothing and no-one is allowed to ask. However it seems their ‘generous’ move in releasing ‘The Lady’ has more to do with trying to deflect international criticism from their Stalinesque victory a week ago.

They have not become democracy huggers overnight. There may however be a growing sense of unease within the ranks of the military about the unrelenting international fondness and domestic devotion for their most high-profile political prisoner.

The generals may have tried to spin her release as a reward for her good behaviour, and now want international recognition for their own good behaviour. However they will be banking on her knowledge - through experience - that should she go too far in her political aspirations she knows how quickly the fence can be re-erected and the barricades put back in place.

Suu Kyi’s first trip from her detention showed her in graphic detail the impoverishment and economic stagnation the international sanctions imposed on Burma have caused ordinary Burmese. Of course they have not chopped in to the lifestyle of the political and military strongmen. They never do. Think Saddam Hussein.

As Thant Myint-U points out in the New York Times, she now faces a vastly different political landscape that when she was last free. The battleground is complicated and the ethnic minorities fighting for their own autonomy.

It is plausible however that Suu Kyi could be part of a move to urge the international community to ease the economic sanctions, and in so doing she may build some sort of a bridge between the current government and the people, but also the outside world and the Burmese people. After all she was part of the campaign that called for the sanctions in the first place, so any indication of positive intentions and a little less of her past rigidity, could avoid infuriating the military and risking re-arrest, while convincing those who will ask so much of her that they too must move into the future.

A junta looking for its own bouquets for freeing the darling of democracy, will not take kindly to being made to look foolish if their oh-so-magnanimous action backfires. Military musclemen don’t take kindly to being outed as the butts of their own mistakes.

Suu Kyi has long been locked out of Burma’s political process, and she is going to need extraordinary international support to regain a tangible political footing. The euphoria of the weekend will naturally abate, giving way to a fraught immediate and long-term future.

It is wise therefore to remember a number of truths:

  • The generals have locked up more than two thousand prisoners of conscience who were not released over the weekend, and have been treated harshly
  • the generals are not paragons of democracy but manipulators of their own people whom they have not in the past hesitated to shoot and brutalize to quell political protest
  • the elections they were so victorious in were a farce
  • the release of their perfect hostage was perfect public relations
  • Burma’s immediate neighbours are not hostile towards it, therefore not much help in the realization of a democratic state within their midst
  • Suu Kyi should never have been arrested in the first place and extensions of her detention were not only risible but illegal, although that is a rather fanciful concept in Burma
  • Suu Kyi will not be allowed, according to Burma’s existing Constitution, to ever hold office because of her ‘criminal convictions’.

Kafka anyone?

All those international leaders who have used her name in speeches about the evils of repression and the beauty of democracy now need to put their money where their mouths are and ensure there is no chance she will again find herself shut away and silenced. This world needs people like Aung San Suu Kyi, and strong as she undoubtedly is, she can not stare down the generals all by herself.