The Way Forward: Will Suu Kyi’s Release Open up Democratic Space?

January 7, 2011
By Salai Nyein Chan
By Salai Nyein Chan

The legal status of National League for Democracy (NLD) and the role of its leader Aung San Suu Kyi became a big question after the party was disbanded by the ruling military junta on 6 May 2010 following its refusal to re-register the party for the elections held last month. The party split internally, with some defectors competing for the National Democratic Force (NDF) in the sham 7/11 election, arguing it made more sense to be involved in the process, no matter how flawed it was. However, Aung San Suu Kyi remains as an apple of the eyes of Burmese people, and she is hope to be able to save back the credit of NLD which is run by the sclerotic leadership of the elderly NLD "Uncles", who somehow held back the movement of Democracy in the country in such refusing to support the demonstrators in September Revolution, and even publicly criticized them.

On 7 November, Burma went to the polls for the first time in 20 years. Widespread reports of coercion, intimidation, vote-buying and, particularly, advance vote-stuffing marred the election. The regime's proxy political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), has unofficially claimed a sweeping victory of more than 80 percent of the votes in the elections. A total of 37 political parties stood for more than 1,100 seats up for grabs for the two houses of parliament and 14 local legislative assemblies for the seven states and seven regions. A number of opposition parties will now hold seats in the new parliament. Meanwhile, the military junta was once again playing its usual tricks by carefully timing Aung San Suu Kyi’s release with the elections in order to divert attention from people’s exasperation on the sham November polls.

Arranging everything on the arrest and release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Than Shwe is said to rely heavily on advice from his soothsayers. Considering the number 13 to be an unlucky number, the 77-year-old Senior General was reported to have chosen the release date of Aung San Suu Kyi to be on November 13.

“Tripartite Dialogue” which has been seen as the essential first step toward national reconciliation in Burma is now far to reach. In her first public speech after her release, Aung San Suu Kyi called for “unity” amongst all actors for change. But the challenge lies in the complex socio-economic and politics dynamics among the different groups in Burma, which makes solidarity of the people more difficult.

With a valuable bargaining chip, Aung San Suu Kyi pointed out her potential change to consider withdrawing her support for international sanctions against the junta, which have damaged Burma's economy. The economic sanction on Burma will remain ineffective in the present context of Burmese struggles for democracy; federalism and self-determination, for people in Burma are already capable of enduring such critical poverty for almost half a century [1962- present]. In addition, even when governments in the West cut off their economic network with military government in Burma in the name of economic sanction, military leaders can survive on foreign investments flourishing from India, ASEAN countries and Russia, not to mention China, and even a number of states, like Iran and North Korea, which they called friendly governments. The U.S. policy of imposing economic sanctions on Myanmar has strengthened China's hand in the region. China even vetoed against a Myanmar resolution in the United Nation Security Council in January, 2007. Myanmar tends to be a Second Tibet in South East Asia as a result of such escalating influence of China over Myanmar government.

As the regime is unable to solve three of Burma’s most intractable problems - ethnic disunity, economic underdevelopment and drugs production and trafficking, it is now upon Aung San Suu Kyi to act more as a people’s leader and not just as a leader of a political party that won the 1990 elections.

In her Shwegonediang speech on 14 November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi invited General Than Shwe for a dialogue to “sort out our differences across the table". While apparent power struggles have plagued Burma's military leadership, it might be easier said than done to solicit the political wills of the regime. While Burma’s new constitution guarantees a dominant role for the military, and impunity for members of the regime, more than 12 international governments have publicly supported a commission of inquiry to look into violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws in Burma. This call has come from EU member states such as the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ireland, Estonia, Hungary, and Lithuania, as well as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The call for the second multi-ethnic Panglong Conference has sparked new hopes among the ethnic groups that this process can actually lead to genuine national reconciliation. Conversely, this idea at the same time can serve to limit the space within which Suu Kyi can make some political maneuverings, as this very thing can also shake the ‘already consolidated’ seat of Than Shwe.

Reflecting her belief in Buddhism, Aung San Suu Kyi cited ‘Grudge and Fate’. Bearing no grudge on her captors, she challenged the people not only to believe in fate but to work hard towards positive change. In essence, she is trying to instill a sense of personal responsibility in affecting real political change. In her interview with the BBC, Suu Kyi made it clear that she is just one of among many to do her part to affect change.

“Even if you are not political, politics will come to you,” is something with which Suu Kyi is trying to engage the larger public. She has mentioned that she intends to travel around the country. But there are legitimate concerns about her physical safety, given the possible scenario of a second Depayin Massacre. Or even worse than that, the fate of Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, who was assassinated in 2007.

As YouTube and other social networks such as Facebook and Twitter had favored Obama during his campaigns for US presidency, Aung San Suu Kyi talked about the important role of communication and media in her speech on the day of release. She once mentioned about wanting to get a Twitter account to get in touch with the younger generation after years of isolation. This would provide better network with, and effective outreach to the younger generations that can have positive impacts on the country’s political transition towards democracy.

It remains to be seen how big a political space the oppositions groups, including Suu Kyi as a figurehead of the movement will have, to be able to work effectively towards change. It is worth waiting to see how far that limited space can provide for all pro-democracy groups to work meaningfully for positive change in Burma.

A shortened version of this aticle first appeared on Chinland Guardian on 16 December 2010.