By Medha Chaturvedi
The release of Nobel laureate and the symbol of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi on 13 November 2010 saw celebrations not only among pro-democracy groups in Myanmar, but also supporters worldwide. This sudden benevolence on the part of the military junta-backed government of Myanmar is not completely surprising. Suu Kyi’s sentence had been increased under the provisions of the new constitution of Myanmar so that her release would coincide with the poll results of the elections held on 7 November, in which the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won. Critics feel that this arrangement was made to divert international attention from the poll result.
While it is too early to analyze the implications of Suu Kyi’s release on Myanmar, it would be interesting to watch how she and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), manage to get back into the political process, having boycotted the elections. It does not seem likely that Suu Kyi will take the road of revolution against the present government as she may be arrested again if she does. While she has pressed for democratization, she also extended an olive branch to the government and called for a dialogue with Gen. Than Shwe to reach an amicable consensus.
Suu Kyi also expressed a desire to work on a second Panglong Conference, following in the footsteps of her father, Gen. Aung San, who held the first conference in February 1947 to enshrine equal rights for people of all ethnicities in Myanmar post-independence. Due to Gen. Aung San’s assassination a few months later however, the agreement was never enacted. Suu Kyi’s struggle though has helped highlight the situation of ethnic minorities and ceasefire groups in Myanmar. These sections support the pro-democracy movement as it would help them regain equality with the majority Barmars. Hence, ethnic political parties who have won a few seats in the elections have expressed support for her.
Western countries including the US and its allies welcomed Suu Kyi’s release and expressed hope for a real change in the political system of Myanmar. The Nobel Prize committee has invited her to give the acceptance speech which she could not deliver when she received the Prize in 1991. Australia, UK, France and the EU also expressed hope for a better Myanmar. In Asia, Japan and Thailand welcomed her release, but Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva did point out that to think “one particular event would be big enough to signal some kind of radical change” was unrealistic. While ASEAN General Secretary, Surin Pitsuswan hoped for Suu Kyi to “contribute to true national reconciliation,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called her “an inspiration” and called upon the Myanmarese government to also release other political prisoners, who number around 2,200.
However, for countries engaged in economic and strategic partnerships with Myanmar, it was a diplomatic tightrope walk. China, Singapore, Vietnam and India have all remained largely non-committal. For New Delhi, it is an extremely delicate situation; India shares over 1,600km (900 miles) of land borders with Myanmar and despite being the world’s largest democracy and expected to push for a democratic process in Myanmar, cannot also disregard its national interests such as they are defined by the government of the day. Indian External Affairs Minister, SM Krishna meanwhile, expressed hope for a positive political change and validated the elections in the country in an official statement.
The NLD being a defunct party, politically, it may be difficult for Suu Kyi to gain an upper hand, but she may be able to press for some reforms owing to her clout with Western powers. Myanmar is a potential resource base for many economies in Asia as well as the West. With countries that Myanmar already enjoys established trade links with, Suu Kyi’s role may be limited. However, with countries like the US and its allies, she enjoys a privileged status which may help her in urging them to rethink their sanctions on Myanmar for better investments and the opening up of the country. China may find its influence on the wane in such a scenario.
Also, the junta-backed government has over the past two decades and more, curtailed pro-democracy supporters and alienated Suu Kyi from the masses. Therefore, to be seen as an important agent of change, she must engage once again with the public and reach out to the youth of the country. However, in order to not be arrested again, she cannot actively pursue political aspirations and hence could better serve as a voice of reason in the chaotic political scenario.
If the people of Myanmar and the international community are looking for quick-fix solutions for the political upheaval in the country, they are going to be disappointed. Suu Kyi is no Messiah who will lead the masses towards instant salvation. Her release is just the first of many steps that need to be taken to achieve any semblance of political order and economic stability in Myanmar.
Medha Chaturvedi, Research Officer, SEARP, IPCS, may be reached at [email protected]