Saturday, November 13, 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi released Into a bigger prison

ONCE again, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese opposition, is in theory at liberty. Her latest spell of house arrest ended on November 13th, when she came briefly out of her home in Yangon, where she had been detained, to greet a crowd of thousands of delighted supporters. In the past, such spells of freedom have been illusory. The junta has placed such strict limits on her activities that she has in effect simply been released into a larger prison.

This time, Miss Suu Kyi emerges into a somewhat changed political landscape. On November 7th the junta staged the first elections for 20 years. They were designed not so much to pass power to civilian politicians as to entrench the junta's own power. Its front “party” has indeed claimed a massive victory. But the polls have at least allowed a tiny flicker of pluralist light into the murk of Burmese totalitarianism.

The question now is how Miss Suu Kyi will fit into the new set-up. If the past is any guide, she will soon try to behave like a politician. Already she has said, through her lawyer, that she will accept no restrictions on her movement. And she has promised to speak to her supporters at her party headquarters on November 14th.

But the party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been officially disbanded and the junta has never before shown much tolerance for her political activities. It resents her huge international popularity—she won the Nobel peace prize in 1990—and, having suppressed every sign of political opposition at home, fears that she alone has the popular following to mount a serious challenge to its rule.

Even before her release, hundreds of people had gathered near her house and outside the headquarters of the erstwhile NLD. This is remarkable, given the blackout imposed on her by Myanmar’s stultifying mass media, composed of junta mouthpieces.
But then Miss Suu Kyi is a remarkable figure. Her heritage, as the daughter of Aung San, Myanmar’s independence hero, was always in her favour. So was her charisma, which swayed huge crowds when she returned from exile in Britain to Myanmar in 1988 to look after her ailing mother. Even under house arrest, her persona helped lead the League to a landslide victory in the previous election, in 1990, whose results were never honoured. And her extraordinary fortitude in surviving two decades of relentless persecution has earned the respect and loyalty of her followers.

She is not without critics, however. The junta seems more firmly entrenched than ever, even after its attempt to don a civilian disguise with the farcically rigged elections. Her own refusal to compromise must be accorded some of the blame. In 1995, she pulled the League from a “national convention” drafting a new constitution. Eventually, as was always certain, it came up with the answer the junta had dreamed up in the first place: continued military dominance. The result was then endorsed in a fraudulent referendum in 2008.

This year again, Miss Suu Kyi advised the League to boycott the election. This led to its formal disbandment, and a split, with a breakaway group contesting the polls. Principled though they were, both boycotts may well have been mistakes. To be fair, both processes were so thoroughly crooked that affording them any degree of legitimacy would also have seemed repellent.

This is the third time Miss Suu Kyi has been “freed”, since she was first detained in 1989. Huge hopes were raised by her freedom in 1995, when the junta allowed the world’s media in to meet her. For a fleeting moment, it seemed she might be allowed to function as a politician. (This time, foreign journalists are banned, as they were for the election, and Burmese embassies and consulates are hard at work weeding out hacks posing as “tourists”.)

The junta would not tolerate her attempts to travel around the country to meet members of her party and other supporters. In 2000 she was detained for 19 months. Freed in December 2002, she was locked up again in 2003, when the junta somehow managed to blame her for a massacre, in which a convoy she was travelling in was attacked by pro-junta thugs.

It managed to extend this period of detention yet further in May last year, again blaming her for being the victim of a crime—when an American of dubious sanity, claiming to be a mission from God, swam across the lake outside her house to meet her.

This latest period of detention ended on November 13th. The junta has always shown a perverse punctiliousness in following the letter of its arbitrarily enforced repressive laws. So that deadline was probably one reason why the date of the election was set a bit before her release—even now, the generals cannot be sure how she will affect public opinion.

Here Banyan should perhaps declare an interest. He met Miss Suu Kyi several times in the late 1990s and remains in awe of her courage, dignity and even sense of humour.

Those who now portray her as a principled but rigid dogmatist, unwilling to make the slightest concession to the junta, forget that she used to face just the opposite criticism. When she was “freed” in 1995, it was to preach the virtues of dialogue and compromise, against those, still buoyed by the electoral triumph in 1990, who thought the junta might simply be swept away. Miss Suu Kyi’s true rigidity was to stick to Gandhian principles. She abhors the violence that would have been entailed by the kind of people-power revolution that some of her supporters had hoped she would lead.

“They have to understand that flexibility and weakness are completely different,” she told The Economist at the time. A steel wire, she said, is strong because it is flexible; a glass rod is rigid but may shatter. In the years since, the junta has done its best to turn her into a glass rod. It has yet to succeed. Banyan’s Notebook, The Economist

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