Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

From One Prison to Another

Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is a gamble for Burma’s ruling junta. Will its post-election confidence prove to be misplaced?

By The Diplomat Special Correspondent for

For Burma’s ‘black magic’ generals, known for consulting astrologers over every major move, November 13 must have seemed an auspicious enough day to release arch foe and democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Her gently decomposing mansion on Inya Lake in north Rangoon has been barricaded with its celebrity prisoner inside for the past seven years.  Altogether, Suu Kyi has spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest here. But on Saturday, crowds started to build outside the army barricades on University Avenue. By late afternoon, the crowd of hard-core supporters—many bravely wearing t-shirts emblazoned with her image—began chanting her name and drawing closer to the barricades.

The soldiers began to get nervous. Reinforcements arrived in the form of helmeted riot police, armed with tear gas and stun grenades, who threatened to disperse the crowd unless it moved back. Army cameramen and ‘MI’ operatives filmed everyone, particularly the dozen or so journalists who had broken cover to report on events. At that point, no-one knew if ‘the lady’ would be released or if the country faced another, bloody, crackdown.

Then, at 5 pm, soldiers began removing the barricades to wild cheers from the crowd. A stampede began; hundreds of people began pouring through barbed wire openings along University Avenue and rushed past soldiers to assemble at the gate outside her home as the light faded.

When Suu Kyi appeared at the gate, her voice was drowned out by the exuberant crowd. An elderly woman standing next to me with tears rolling down her cheeks said, ‘Isn’t she beautiful? Now that she is free my happiness knows no limits.’

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Addressing the crowd, Suu Kyi called for unity and determination, announcing a public rally for the following day. For hours, long after she’d retreated back to her home to consult with her NLD (National League for Democracy) colleagues, the people kept arriving. 

And on Sunday, a huge crowd moved along roads past the Lucky 7 teashop towards the NLD headquarters in the sweltering heat. Although her party was banned from participating in the recent elections, the 10,000 people who showed up underscored the fact that the party is still very much alive for them.

‘I believe in human rights and I believe in the rule of law,’ Suu Kyi told the crowd, ‘I am for national reconciliation and for dialogue.’ 

She said there was much work to be done and called for a face-to-face meeting with junta leader General Than Shwe. 

‘If my people aren’t free, how can I say that I am free?’

This sentiment encapsulated the views of one Burmese activist who noted the day before: ‘If they release her, she’ll simply be moving from a smaller prison into a bigger one—our whole country is a prison.’

A junta official confirmed via state media that there are no conditions on her release, but that pledge will no doubt be tested if and when she begins touring the country campaigning as before. 

International reaction to news she had been freed was swift. US President Barack Obama hailed her release, calling her a ‘personal hero’; UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called her ‘an inspiration’ and the Secretary General of ASEAN said he was ‘relieved.’ Overnight, the black market money changers revalued local currency the Kyat to make it stronger against the dollar.

Why has Suu Kyi been released now? While continuing to rule the country with an iron grip, and having been emboldened with their recent thumping election victory (they claim to have secured more than 80 percent of the vote, although the ballot was derided by the international community as rigged), the ruling generals are likely now more confident about letting the ‘genie’ out again.

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And why not? Backed by China, a do-nothing ASEAN and neighbours like India and Thailand, who are more interested in access to Burma’s bounteous natural resources than human rights considerations, the generals have only ever heeded international pressure when it suits them.  

In recent weeks, the junta has embarked on some dramatic changes, introducing a new flag for the country and changing the constitutional status from the ‘Union of Myanmar’ to the ‘Republic of Myanmar.’ Ethnic groups have decried the moves, seeing it as a new attempt to sideline those who have waged long insurgencies against the central Burmese government.

The idea of a ‘union’ was established by Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero Aung San, when he sought the co-operation of ethnic groups through the Panlaung Agreement to join newly independent Burma. Some ethnic groups were given the right to secede after 10 years, while others were promised wide autonomy within the Union.

But since Aung San’s assassination at the birth of independence in 1948, successive governments have reneged on the original agreement and thus the world’s longest running civil war continues. The announcement that Burma is no longer a ‘union’ further cements Burman ethnic control.

The army has demanded ethnic guerrilla groups effectively become border guards for the government or face further attacks. Most ethnic groups have refused, and immediately after the ballot a breakaway Karen group, the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) took control of parts of Myawaddy border town. Fighting there has pushed more than 10,000 refugees into Thailand over the past week, and other ethnic areas such as the Kachin, Shan and Wa are tense.

Yet while the generals remain firmly in control, they’re not completely invulnerable. Weeks before the election there was an assassination attempt on Gen. Than Shwe. In addition, some officers are thought to be disgruntled by the slow pace of reform, the complete alignment with China (Burma, like many south-east Asian nations, has periodic anti-Chinese purges) and the suppression of monks in a deeply Buddhist country.

And there’s also the uncertainty that would come with a sudden leadership change. If, for example, Chinese President Hu Jintao were assassinated, the Chinese Communist Party machinery is so well orchestrated that it’s likely little would change. In Burma, however, with its history of demagogic military leaders, such an event would almost certainly create a power struggle at the top with a new cadre of leaders wanting to stamp their own vision on things. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the last junta purge in Burma, which saw the end of the Ne Win/Khin Nyunt era, put many of these military men in the same prison cells as the 1988 student uprising leaders who they had imprisoned and tortured.

The generals have taken a gamble in releasing Suu Kyi so close to a discredited election. She already has the status of Burma’s defacto elected leader, and her popularity is undiminished—she continues to be a symbol of defiance and an enduring threat to the regime.

The concern, therefore, is that Suu Kyi has herself also become far more vulnerable. With all the euphoria surrounding her release, many Burmese don’t want to dwell on the very real possibility that Suu Kyi is at genuine risk of being assassinated. But in 2003, when she was last released, regime-backed thugs attacked her convoy while she was on the campaign trail. More than 100 of her followers were killed and Suu Kyi only survived thanks to the quick wits of her driver.

Burma is still a nation ruled by fear, and remains an uncomfortable bedfellow with other ASEAN nations. The Orwellian billboards written in English, (‘Only when the army is strong is the nation strong’ and ‘We must unite to crush all above ground and underground destructive elements’) have been removed for the sake of foreign tourists, but the Burmese language ones remain.

A people’s revolution led by students in 1988 was crushed; a ‘saffron’ revolution led by monks in 2007 was similarly put down and people are still afraid to take to the streets again. Only an open split in the military, triggered by an unforeseen event, is likely to spark any chance of change. Until that happens, Burmese face a glacial movement towards democracy that could take decades.

That said, for now at least, Burma’s citizens are happy they are at least getting the chance to share their ‘open prison’ with the nation’s most-loved jailbird.