‘The Lady’ retains inspiring, potent, uniting political role
Friday, 12 November 2010 22:32 Benedict Rogers
London – Tomorrow, Aung San Suu Kyi will have spent a total of 15 years and 20 days in detention. Under Burmese law, she should be released, and it is looking increasingly likely that she will be. Although the regime has a poor track record of keeping its word or upholding its own laws, the regime will want to divert attention away from last Sunday’s sham elections which perpetuate military rule, and give the international community a fig leaf.
The regime has played it well from their point of view – legally they should have released her when her period of house arrest expired last year, but then, conveniently, American Mormon John Yettaw came to the junta’s aid, swam across the lake, and landed Suu Kyi with three years’ hard labour. In an act designed to appear compassionate, Than Shwe reduced this to 18 months’ house arrest – conveniently timing her release for six days after the sham elections.
On paper, Suu Kyi appears to have been sidelined from Burmese politics. The new constitution prohibits her from running in elections, and the election laws required political parties contesting the elections to expel any prisoners among their members. Unsurprisingly, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), could not expel their leader, a Nobel Peace laureate and a most powerful symbol of the struggle for freedom in Burma, and so the NLD boycotted the polls and was banned as a party by the regime.
In reality, however, Suu Kyi retains the most extraordinarily potent political role. She is as central and relevant to Burma’s politics as ever. No one else has the capacity to inspire, mobilise and unite people. On my visits to Burma in recent years, ordinary people of all generations have spoken with immense respect and affection for “The Lady”. This year, I stood on one side of Inya Lake and looked straight across at the dilapidated house in which she had been confined for most of the past two decades.
The few people who have been able to meet her in recent years, particularly British Ambassador Andrew Heyn, have spoken of her continuing physical and mental energy and total commitment to her country’s struggle. Among the ethnic nationalities, she is the only Burman whom people speak of with genuine love and respect. Indeed, to those who say she is no longer relevant, I would ask: well then why has the regime kept her locked up for all these years?
If she steps out from her house in the next few hours, it will be as visually momentous as Nelson Mandela’s walk out of prison in South Africa. There is, however, one key difference. Mandela was freed because South Africa’s apartheid regime was crumbling, and F.W. de Klerk knew he had to reform. He engaged with Mandela to chart a peaceful transition to democracy, and Mandela’s release was part of a process of change. Mandela and de Klerk worked hand-in-hand. In Burma, if the generals have their way, there will be no change.
A long-time National League for Democracy supporter awaits the release from house arrest today of Aung San Suu Kyi outside the NLD head office in Bahan Township, Rangoon. By early evening, leaders told those hoping to see Suu Kyi, after reports she would be released a day early, to come back tomorrow.
That is why it is essential that the international community make it clear that Suu Kyi’s release, while welcome, is by itself no measure of progress. She herself said when she was last released in 2002: “My release should not be looked at as a major breakthrough for democracy. For all people in Burma to enjoy basic freedom – that would be the major breakthrough.”
Pressure must be increased on the regime to seize the moment of her release, and engage in a genuine dialogue with her, the democracy movement and the ethnic nationalities. If it wants to show it is serious, the regime must release the more than 2,100 political prisoners currently in jail, including Min Ko Naing, Ko Mya Aye, Ko Ko Gyi and Hkun Htun Oo. The military must declare a nationwide ceasefire, and end its offensives against ethnic civilians. Rape, forced labour, torture, the forcible recruitment of child soldiers and the destruction of villages must stop.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must deploy all the resources available to him to revive a UN-led initiative to encourage dialogue in Burma. Dialogue is the one policy that unites everyone. The UN Security Council, General Assembly, Human Rights Council and office of the Secretary General; the European Union, the United States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and even China, have called for dialogue. Suu Kyi and the ethnic nationalities have both indicated their readiness to talk – indeed, dialogue and national reconciliation is the centrepiece of their platform.
The alternative to dialogue is continued, perhaps increased ethnic conflict and political instability. That is the regime’s choice. Its record does not inspire hope, but with targeted high-level pressure from the international community led by Ban Ki-moon, if Suu Kyi is freed, there is an opportunity to be seized. Last Sunday’s elections failed to bring about Burma’s freedom – but let this Sunday mark a new dawn for Burma.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a group based in London. He has made more than 30 visits to Burma and its borderlands, and is the author of Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant (Silkworm Books, 2010).