Will the regime free Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi soon?
Suu Kyi’s aides and her faithful followers believe so. They say the Nobel Peace Prize winner may be released from her latest term of house arrest this weekend. They also predict that after her release, Suu Kyi will mainly focus on diplomatic relations with foreign countries, both regional and around the world.
The pundits inside and outside Burma wonder whether the regime would dare to take the security risk of freeing Suu Kyi, with skeptics saying the regime could extend her detention. Plenty of charges against Suu Kyi could be cooked up, including her recent call to boycott Sunday's election, and enough excuses could be found for not freeing her. The final decision doubtless rests with junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe.
Suu Kyi's release would raise hope and expectation. The charismatic leader remains a political figurehead in Burmese politics—ethnic leaders who recently witnessed with concern the renewed fighting between junta forces and a Karen splinter group say that, like her father, independence hero Gen Aung San, she is the one who can reconcile Burma’s deep political and ethnic divisions.
To those who quietly or openly question her relevance in Burmese politics and her stance during her absence from the political scene, Britain's Rangoon ambassador Andrew Heyn has the answer: “As for her relevance, all the evidence points to a regime that still fears that she is very relevant.”
Many will certainly agree with his assessment. But they also want to hear what her next move is likely to be and her strategy to break the political stalemate. They await her stance on western sanctions, her opinion of Burma’s fixed election results, her policy on humanitarian assistance to Burma, foreign investment, the proposed commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity, and her views on the divided international approach toward Burma—particularly on China’s much-criticized policy position.
But why should the regime need to free Suu Kyi at this time?
One reason is Sunday's election, in which the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) claims to have won an improbable 80 percent of the vote.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) said the election was a “significant step forward.” Asean’s Vietnamese chair said in a statement published by the Vietnamese state media on Tuesday: “Asean encourages Myanmar [Burma] to continue to accelerate the process of national reconciliation and democratization for stability and development in the country.”
In other regional applause for the election, China's official Global Times said Bejing supported “Myanmar's plan to transform its political system, but knows it will not happen overnight.”
Opposition parties which contested the election were unhappy with the way it was held and threatened to boycott the outcome because of widespread fraud, a questionable practice of advance voting and other abuses. Twenty candidates of three of the parties that contested the election launched a nationwide action calling for a new vote, on the grounds that Sunday's polling was neither free nor fair.
Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy boycotted the election, is said to be interested in looking into the complaints of election fraud once she is free.
Ethnic armed groups and ethnic opposition parties will certainly be watching how Suu Kyi reacts to the conflict in ethnic regions and anticipating her important role in the national reconciliation process.
Many will be watching to see how Suu Kyi deals with the “new landscape” in Burma. There are hopes that Suu Kyi, now 65, will undertake her political moves carefully and cautiously.
Even if Than Shwe decides to pull the strings from behind the scenes, Suu Kyi will be encountering a new leadership. Suu Kyi can expect a new generation of army leaders who are tough and hardline, however, and who will not be too enthusiastic to see her tour Burma building up a democratic opposition.
But how will this new leadership react to Suu Kyi and the political potential she possesses? Or it will just be a vicious circle?