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Aung San Suu Kyi, Finally Free -- but What of Democracy for Burma?

4 years ago
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For those of us who've managed to get to Rangoon, Burma, and make the pilgrimage to the house on University Avenue where the freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest for the past seven years, Saturday was a big day. The house, shrouded by overgrown foliage, possessed of little besides the legendary Nobel Peace Prize laureate, her broken piano and a collection of books, was never easy to see from the street: Armed guards were stationed outside the tall iron gates that kept passers-by from entering the premises (at least from the front).

During times of political or civic unrest, the country's ruling junta would often shut down the street to all manner of traffic, stationing guard posts at either end of her street to stop vehicles. I visited Burma, also known as Myanmar, for the first time several years ago when the street was still open, and asked a cab driver to take me to University Avenue. As we passed by her house, I remember raising my fist low, pumping it in solidarity as we sped by -- in the military-ruled country, you didn't want to be caught lingering in front of the residence of the country's leading democratic dissident.

And so the footage, Saturday, of her release, was stunning: thousands of Burmese citizens stood outside the gates, cheering wildly in expectation -- then suddenly, the woman known simply to her countrymen as "the Lady" appeared at the top of the gates, beaming, radiant, ready for action. The crowd went wild, breaking into the national anthem -- a spontaneous show of national pride, and a reminder that this country was still theirs, too.

For the people of Burma who have endured nearly half a century of one of the world's most brutal dictatorships -- including last week's national elections deemed by most in the international community to be neither free nor fair, and instead intended to cement military rule -- it was perhaps the most powerful sign that the seemingly impossible battle to push Burma toward democracy is not over.

Thus far, Suu Kyi's freedom is being greeted inside the country with hope and trepidation, according to people familiar with the situation on the ground. Nyi Nyi Aung, an American citizen and Burmese democracy activist who was imprisoned and tortured by the regime last year before American officials negotiated his release, said: "People feel reborn. There are so many hopes and dreams they have for Burma. But most people are worried about her security."

It is not the first time Aung San Suu Kyi has been released -- she has been arrested and released on three occasions since her first incarceration in 1989. During the most recent release, her convoy was attacked in what many say was a government-directed assassination attempt. An exiled Burmese activist who has worked with Aung San Suu Kyi, Min Zin, said her release was "hard to read."

"There were no political discussions before her release -- it seems to be very open-ended," said Min Zin.

Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, is no longer officially recognized as a political organization, despite the fact that it won a landslide victory in Burma's last democratic elections, held in 1990. This year, the National League for Democracy declined to participate in the elections Nov. 7, deeming the election laws unfair -- and as a result, they were forced to disband.

It's unclear what the ruling junta intends to allow Suu Kyi to say or do, now that she is free. As such, it remains to be seen just how much influence she will be able to wield in trying to guide the fractured country on a path toward national reconciliation -- her stated goal. Jared Genser, the president of Freedom Now, who has been Suu Kyi's international counsel for the last four years, reads her release as a sign that the regime feels "emboldened" -- and that "they have consolidated power" to the extent that she is no longer a threat to their control of the country.

Min Zin noted: "One possibility is that they have released her to escalate tension. The military might then use its civilian thugs to incite violence, or provoke a reaction. Alternately, they might let her reach out to the public [without giving her any political power], so the situation will remain chaotic and unresolved -- which will leave people disillusioned. They might try to just wear her down."

For his part, Genser offered, "This is not a Nelson Mandela-like moment, where you set the country on a path to multiparty governance and a transition of power. There is no evidence to suggest the Burmese regime has any interest in negotiating" with Aung San Suu Kyi or the National League for Democracy.

Both Genser and Nyi Nyi Aung assert that her release should signal to the international community that it must step up pressure on the regime -- rather than relax it. Specifically, Genser believes the rest of the world must press for the release of the 2,200 political prisoners languishing in Burma's jails. He also advocates support for a Commission of Inquiry at the United Nations -- the first step in investigating the Burmese regime for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. "This is the single step on a proverbial thousand-mile journey," Genser said.

Ultimately, it's still too early to determine how Aung San Suu Kyi's release will determine Burma's political future. For now, it's clear that her freedom has changed the dynamic on the ground considerably. "People are talking about her on the street," Genser said. "You never hear Burmese discuss politics in public."

The streets of Rangoon, alive with celebration over the return of a democratic icon to the national stage, remain filled with optimism -- and for Burma's citizenry, the hope for what might be possible has not yet crested. "People are really looking for leadership -- they need guidance," Min Zin said. "This is prime time for Aung San Suu Kyi."

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