AUNG San Suu Kyi is planning to test the boundaries of her new freedom.
The Burmese pro-democracy leader is to tour the country to rebuild the opposition and restore her support outside the big cities
Now that the first applause has died away since her November 13 release from house arrest, the hard part starts for Suu Kyi as she tries to revive the Burmese democracy movement in the face of repression. “I had better go on living until I see a democratic Burma,” she said laughingly.
Suu Kyi’s smiling face looks out from colourful photographs on the front pages of newspapers hawked by children in Rangoon.
There is always the spray of flowers – like the Queen, she manages to accept them with graceful surprise every time – and always the rapturous band of supporters. Apart from a few lurking plain-clothes operatives, the army and police are nowhere to be seen.
Start of sidebar. Skip to end of sidebar.
End of sidebar. Return to start of sidebar.
However, Suu Kyi says Burma has changed since she vanished into confinement seven years ago. And some of those changes may not work in her favour. It is, perhaps, the bustling normality of Rangoon in the week since her release that poses a testing question for “The Lady” and the generals.
There are traffic jams, a real estate boom that has construction workers hammering into the night, crowded tea-shops, throbbing nightlife and a flood of money from Asia that is delivering prosperity to more people than the democrats like to admit.
Stability plus wealth equals successful authoritarian rule, a formula the junta has learnt from its Chinese allies, says a seasoned foreign diplomat. “They have taken the risk of releasing her because they think it works,” he said.
The gap between traditional Burmese hierarchies and the kind of viral politics that could lead to the “peaceful revolution” of which Suu Kyi spoke last week is wide. She has talked of using IT to spark change, but the junta keeps a tight grip on Burma’s sputtering internet connections.
And the generals, skulking in their jungle redoubt at the newly built capital, Nay Pyi Daw, need only watch and wait. Diplomats are also watching and waiting to see how Suu Kyi walks the fine line between promoting peaceful revolution and provoking the regime into locking her up again, or worse.
“We are going slowly and carefully,” said Win Tin, a leading member of Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy. Her aides predict Suu Kyi will move step by step to visit constituencies in Rangoon first, then go outside the capital to restore her links with other activists.
A key test will be her return to Mandalay, the golden-spired city in central Burma where protests by Buddhist monks in 2007 led to a heavy crackdown on its myriad monasteries.
There are also hard political challenges. The NLD was dissolved by the junta after Suu Kyi and her lieutenants decided to boycott the first elections in 20 years, those held on November 7.
This week her lawyers will pursue an application in court to restore its legal status, but the Burmese judiciary does the junta’s bidding, so any verdict in the case will be politically directed.
Then she has to deal with the reality that the junta shrewdly splintered the democratic movement by persuading a significant number of opposition figures to stand in the election, even though they knew it was neither free or fair. Some won seats.
No fewer than 37 parties contested the polls and Suu Kyi said it “would be nice” if her movement could work with those who shared her aspirations for a better Burma.
However, the junta has created a new normality. Its new parliament will probably convene soon to select a former military man as prime minister, governing with a huge pro-army majority and a token opposition. It will claim this is a return to civilian rule.
All of this renews the debate on sanctions and tourist boycotts. For China, most other Asian nations and for the junta’s fellow autocrats, sanctions are irrelevant. For the West, the uncomfortable truth is they have not worked. Investment is pouring in and even Japan has wavered. So governments and campaigners around the world are waiting for Suu Kyi’s first words on the policy.
“Sanctions are an asset to be traded for concessions,” said a diplomat in Rangoon. “She cannot give away her best card without something in return, and her mere release is not enough.”
Not a word has been heard from the senior general, Than Shwe, 77, on the events of the past week. His motives in releasing Suu Kyi, for whom he harbours an intense dislike, remain enigmatic.
She has called for a dialogue with him, spoken of her respect for the army, talked endlessly of reconciliation and promised that a settlement is in the interests of the soldiers as well as the people.
From the general, though, there is only ominous silence.
The Sunday Times