How relevant is Aung San Suu Kyi?

If released from house arrest, the icon of Myanmar’s democracy movement will be entering a new political landscape.

Supporters of Myanmar''s detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi demonstrating
If released from house arrest, will Aung San Suu Kyi be able to rally her supporters? [GALLO/GETTY]

To some in her country she is known as “The Lady”, and to others, the more endearing “Aunty Suu”. Yet beyond the borders of Myanmar, which has endured nearly 50 years of oppressive military regimes, Aung San Suu Kyi has been long regarded as the icon of the country’s struggling democracy movement.

But as Myanmar reaches a political crossroads in November, Suu Kyi’s credentials will come under scrutiny. How much power and reach would she still have to rally her followers barely a week after the south-east Asian nation’s first general election in two decades?


If the country’s military leaders are to be believed, the 65-year-old Nobel laureate is due to be released from her current seven-year spell of house arrest on November 13. But the political landscape that Suu Kyi will face will be different from what she encountered during the two previous times she was freed from house arrest – the first in July 1995, and the second in May 2002.

This nemesis of Myanmar’s military leaders has spent over 14 years as a prisoner in her lakeside home in Rangoon, the former capital, since July 1989.

This time, she will no longer have the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party she helped found in 1988, as a legitimate body to turn to. The NLD was banned this year for deciding to boycott the November poll.

The ban, however, has not stopped this formidable political force from trying to assert its oppositionist role with regard to the November poll. The NLD won over 80 per cent of the seats in parliament at the 1990 general elections, but the junta refused to recognise the results of that vote. Since August, leaders of the NLD have risked long jail terms by mounting an election boycott campaign across Myanmar.

“We have been telling people they have the right to stay away from the polling booth,” Ohn Kyaing, a member of the NLD central executive committee, said in a telephone interview from Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city.

This campaign to remind voters in the cities and the rural areas of the NLD’s relevance was conveyed through the “party’s large network of members,” revealed the 67-year-old, who was released in 2005 following a 16-year jail term for his political activity.

An elected opposition?

How the NLD’s boycott campaign fares – and how it subsequently deals with the presence of an elected opposition in a semi-legitimate parliament – will bear watching as indicators of Suu Kyi’s clout after the poll and after her release.

“The campaign asking people not to vote will test the influence the NLD and Daw Suu Kyi still have on the people,” said a Rangoon-based analyst, using the honorific ‘Daw’ to refer to the banned NLD’s leader. “It is a fact that they cannot ignore.”

“The presence of an elected government and opposition in parliament, no matter how flawed the elections, cannot be brushed aside by her after November 13.”

“They were non-existent when she was last freed,” added the analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The NLD and Suu Kyi will have clear competition for the mantle of Burma’s opposition.”

Yet Suu Kyi has a “political card only she could play,” he revealed. “She has the option of testing and even overturning these new realities with what she did after her last release.”

Soon after her second release from house arrest in May 2002, the defiant and widely popular Suu Kyi embarked on a tour across the country, visiting some 135 townships in 12 states and divisions to reach out to both the majority Burman and ethnic minority communities.

The tens of thousands of supporters she drew affirmed her pivotal place in Myanmar’s political landscape, much to the junta’s chagrin.

One of these convoys was attacked in May 2003 by pro-junta thugs, resulting in 282 deaths and leading to Suu Kyi’s arrest and detention in her house for the third time.

New generals

Yet any hope that Suu Kyi may have of engaging with the more pragmatic military leaders in the junta, as she did during her two previous stints of freedom, has been ruled out by the country’s strongman, Senior General Than Shwe.

“The entire clique within the military that Suu Kyi could do business with is gone. They were cosmopolitan and were comfortable in dealing with foreigners,” said David Scott Mathieson, a Myanmar consultant for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based global rights lobby. “She is coming out when there are new generals in office.”

Nothing reflects this shift more than the political fate of General Khin Nyunt, the former spy chief of the junta. As the junta’s Number Two – and viewed by some as a “pragmatist” – he was the main interlocutor for the military during talks with Suu Kyi. Today, General Khin Nyunt is under house arrest, following the purge that Than Shwe launched to go after Khin Nyunt loyalists.

Likewise, the reclusive junta leader’s moves will be key to how much political space Suu Kyi will have if she is indeed freed later in November. Will her third encounter with freedom be open-ended or entail limits, including restrictions on travel within Rangoon, as was the case when she was first freed in July 1995 after six years under house arrest?

“What they [the junta] do when Suu Kyi is released will send a message,” says Andrew Heyn, Britain’s ambassador to Myanmar. “She is well informed and committed and wants to stay involved.”

This article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.

Source: IPS