Pro-democracy leader emerges from seven-year house arrest and addresses supporters gathered outside her home in Yangon.
|Few in Myanmar believe the military government released Aung Suu Kyi as a simple gesture of goodwill, and deeper motives are being questioned, as some fear she could be re-arrested or attacked by pro-government ‘thugs’ [AFP]|
A dilapidated colonial villa on the banks of the Inya Lake in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, has regained its identity as a home – instead of a prison – following Saturday’s release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the icon of the military-ruled country’s democracy movement.
Yet it is not the first time that this change of identity has taken place. The 65-year-old Nobel Peace laureate’s release from house arrest by the junta brought an end to her seven-year stretch of political isolation, which began after pro-regime thugs attacked Suu Kyi and her supporters in central Myanmar in May 2003.
Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero Aung San, has been granted freedom twice before since her first imprisonment in her ancestral home in July 1989. The freedoms granted to her by the military leaders of Myanmar, or Burma, were never permanent.
Thus, as Suu Kyi takes her first tentative steps as a free citizen, after spending 15 of the past 21 years as a prisoner in her home, concern is already being expressed about how long her freedom will last.
“This is a very dangerous period,” says Khin Ohmar, chairwoman of the Network for Democracy and Development in Burma, an umbrella organisation of Burmese political activists in exile. “The regime is not releasing her out of respect that she has an important role to play in Burma’s political process and national reconciliation.”
The regime’s record over the past two decades feeds such worries. The junta’s reclusive strongman, Senior General Than Shwe, has strengthened the military’s numbers and issued an order that has crushed any hint of political freedom and democratic sentiment.
“In the last 20 years, every single move by the regime has been to its benefit,” Khin Ohmar explained during a telephone interview from the Thai- Burma border. “It has always been a part of their control strategy. They have never changed.”
Some former political prisoners even worry for Suu Kyi’s life now that she has the liberty to go around in public. “We are concerned that she may be rearrested on some charge or attacked by government thugs,” said Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP), a group that campaigns for the rights of jailed political dissidents. “She has been attacked before.”
Suu Kyi’s long spells as a political prisoner and how she has been treated once free have shaped these deep doubts about the junta’s motives. “There is no rule of law in Burma,” Bo Kyi, himself a former political prisoner, said. “The regime’s motives are never sincere.”
Suu Kyi has been a thorn in the side of Myanmar’s military rulers since her return to the country in early 1988 to take care of her ailing mother. Her arrival after a long absence abroad coincided with a pro-democracy uprising that year against a military regime that had been in power since a 1962 coup.
The political neophyte was soon propelled into being a star of the country’s young democracy movement, drawing hundreds of thousands of supporters to a mass political rally she addressed in late 1988 in Yangon. Soon after, she helped found the National League for Democracy (NLD) to contest the 1990 general election, the first multi-party poll in 28 years.
Yet her freedom was short-lived as the military leaders — who had already crushed the 1988 pro-democracy uprising where 3,000 people were killed — discovered the power of Suu Kyi’s message of democracy and non-violence. She was forced off the streets and imprisoned in her home almost a year before the 1990 elections, beginning her first stretch under house arrest that lasted six years.
But Myanmar’s voters had other ideas. They gave the NLD a thumping majority, some 82 per cent of the seats in the national legislature, in that 1990 poll. But the junta refused to recognise the results, setting into motion a long acrimonious relationship between those armed with the guns and those who derived strength from non-violent democratic sentiments.
“It is asymmetrical politics that you started to see in Burma after Suu Kyi arrived on the scene,” said a Yangon-based political analyst. “You had the powerful, heavily armed military against a woman leading a movement that stood for peaceful political change through democracy.”
“She deserves credit for making the democracy movement in Burma a non- violent one and helping to keep it that way,” the analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. “The anti-regime forces could have easily turned violent out of frustration and years of suppression.”
Her stature in the past two decades has also gone beyond the country’s majority Burman ethnic community and reached the country’s patchwork of ethnic minority communities that have been at war and have endured decades of oppression under the grip of a Burman-dominated military.
Analysts have credited Suu Kyi and the NLD for getting the ethnic minorities to feel part of the movement for political change, though their push for tripartite talks between the regime, the pro-democracy movement and the ethnic minorities.
Among these groups are the Karen, one of the largest ethnic nationalities whose rebel forces have been waging a separatist struggle for six decades. “We are very happy to see Aung San Suu Kyi freed after so many years,” said Zipporah Sein, general secretary of the Karen National Union. “She is very important for the ethnic groups and for the people of Burma because of her struggle for rights.”
A version of this article first appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.