Monday, January 17, 2011

Myanmar - A New, More Cautious Suu Kyi?

Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been very busy in the two months since she was released from house arrest on Nov. 13. In addition to giving numerous interviews to international media outlets, she has met with HIV/AIDS patients, the families of political prisoners, NGO workers, visiting diplomats, UN officials and Burmese economists and youth leaders.

Despite this flurry of activity, however, many wonder how much she will be able to achieve, and indeed, how much longer she will remain free to speak to the outside world.

For the time being, Suu Kyi is making the most of her freedom.

She has told colleagues that she is enjoying this new opportunity to reconnect with people and rebuild networks, but isn’t taking it for granted.

She knows that she could be detained again at any time. She feels, however, that she is learning how to coexist with Burma’s ruling generals.

Indeed, many observers have noted that Suu Kyi has been more cautious than in the past.

She has repeatedly extended olive branches to the generals, who continue to ignore her as if she were, in their eyes, just another convicted criminal.

This has led some to question whether Suu Kyi’s recent efforts to reach out to the junta — and especially her offer to reconsider her position on sanctions — are actually too conciliatory.

On the subject of sanctions, Suu Kyi recently told Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper that she first raised the issue with the generals more than a year ago, long before her release.

“I said that I was prepared to work together with them to remove sanctions that were hurtful to the people at large,” she said.

“If sanctions are truly hurting the people, then we must review the situation because we do not want the people to be hurt unnecessarily.”
While some have expressed concern about this apparent softening of Suu Kyi’s support for sanctions, others have noted that she seems to have matured over the years.

They even say that at 65, she has become more like the statesman that her father was in his early 30s, before he and his cabinet were gunned down in 1947.

For dissidents who want to maintain tough sanctions and hold the generals accountable for human rights violations and repression of the civilian population, however, Suu Kyi is probably not enough like her father, who boldly resisted both the British and the Japanese in his struggle for Burmese independence.

Some also criticize her repeated calls for dialogue, which many see as pointless because of the irreconcilable ideological differences between the junta leaders and the democratic opposition.

They say that she should honestly admit that dialogue is impossible because neither she nor the generals are willing to alter their fundamental positions.

However, Suu Kyi herself clearly understands that dialogue, if it ever comes, will involve compromise.

“If one believes in dialogue, one has to believe in compromise as well. If you are not prepared to compromise, then it is no use saying that you want dialogue, because it cannot become a genuine dialogue,” she told the Asahi Shimbun.

Meanwhile, the regime is preparing to convene Burma’s first parliament in 22 years.

The opening session will take place 85 days after the Nov.7 election, in which the junta’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, claimed to win 76 percent of the seats.

As the regime attempts to establish the trappings of a normal government, one thing is clear: Suu Kyi won’t be a part of it.

There are even fears that once the new government is firmly in place, she could face the same treatment she has many times in the past.

She need only cross the invisible line and she will be placed back under house arrest — if she’s lucky. If not, she could be sent to Insein Prison, where accommodations have been built especially for her.

Even worse, she could come under physical attack again, as she was at Depayin in 2003.

In the meantime, Suu Kyi will continue building networks and nurturing a new generation of young leaders who can carry on the struggle for democracy.

To this end, she will also need to extend her own freedom, even as she does her best to avoid being locked up again.

The generals have been silent, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been watching every move she has made since her release or listened to every word. So far, it seems, she hasn’t said or done anything that warrants throwing her behind bars.

One former senior general who belonged to the State Law and Order Restoration Council, an earlier incarnation of the current regime, even expressed admiration for Suu Kyi’s manner since her latest release. Listening to her speeches, he said that she had matured and now seemed more capable of finding common ground with her former captors — something he said would be good for Burma.

He also noted that the love and admiration Burmese people feel for Suu Kyi greatly surpassed anything expressed by her many overseas supporters.

The challenge, then, will be for Suu Kyi to win the hearts of the generals.

To do this, the former general said, she should read books written by former army officers who fought against the Communist Party of Burma, the Kuomintang and ethnic insurgents from the 1950s to the 1980s. That way, he said, Suu Kyi would come to know and understand the role of the armed forces.

And, he added, it would also help her to find the words, in the coded language of military men, that will finally get the current senior leaders and the officers who will succeed them to listen to her.

By Aung Zaw founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine

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