Witnessing a Season of Hope at Last?
The Khaleej Times, UAE
November 12, 2009
For many long years in Burma the hopes and aspirations of its people have been brutally crushed by one of the world’s most repressive and abusive military regimes in power. But, for once, there is also a flickering ?glimmer of hope that the generals might free the country’s foremost pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi…soon. Or so it seems.
It is, of course, an ironical use of the four-letter word “soon.” After all, how soon is soon enough—considering that Suu Kyi has already spent some 14 of the past 20 years under solitary detention!
However, for whatever it might be worth, the Director of Burma’s Foreign Ministry Min Lwin has hinted, “there is a plan to release her soon…so she can organise her party.” That he has pointedly refused to elaborate is hardly surprising. But if the dictatorial military junta headed by General Than Shwe does, to any degree, relax her restrictions and Suu Kyi is in a position to stand for election and/or freely campaign for her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the 2010 polls, the country would certainly witness some dramatic results.
And that because Suu Kyi, as is well remembered, had won a landslide victory in the last 1990 polls with the NLD securing 394 of the total 489 seats in the fray. What is equally well remembered with much anger is that the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) had promptly annulled the poll results. Suu Kyi, along with about 2,000 of her supporters, was imprisoned. And the more than alarmed generals in Rangoon had quickly tightened their slipping grip on power.
That Suu Kyi definitely retains her ability and her charisma to make a stunning political comeback, despite her party being in much disarray and her supporters highly de-motivated, is hardly in doubt. But, given these obvious implications of her release, what is surprising is what Min Lwin has said about the possibility of her release.
One wonders how much this apparent shift in attitude is motivated by next week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Singapore, where the US President Barack Obama will meet various leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -– including Burma’s Prime Minister General Thein Sein. And although it is known that President Obama is hardly likely to talk directly with Thein Sein, the very fact that he may be willing to follow a policy of engagement with Burma (almost universally shunned by the West over its poor rights record and refusal to allow free elections) may lead to a very welcome change in a country overpowered by over-ambitious generals and ruled by coercion. The change may come gradually and grudgingly. But come it will. And already, there are signs that the political ‘atmospherics’ in Burma too is beginning to change.
After refusing UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon permission to meet Suu Kyi in July this year, the authorities did allow the US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and his deputy Scott Marciel to meet senior government officials, including Prime Minister Thein Sein, and Suu Kyi.
Many nations and prominent international leaders have over the years been appealing for Suu Kyi’s release and democratic reforms within the country. But the international community has obviously failed to influence the generals in any tangible fashion. In fact, Obama himself has asked Burma’s military leadership to release Suu Kyi and the other several thousand political prisoners. There has also been mounting criticism of the ruling military junta by Burma’s ASEAN neighbours. The United Nations, condemning the country’s human rights record, has urged national reconciliation and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) had at one point announced it will seek “to prosecute members of the ruling Burmese junta for crimes against humanity,” at the International Court of Justice.
The sheer economic mismanagement and political repression has sparked a series of pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country in recent years and the widespread unrest has been escalating. What is now required to “spur democratic reforms,” as Suu Kyi put it after her recent meeting with the two American envoys, is a catalyst.
One hopes that any (even informal) dialogue between Obama and Burma’s Prime Minister Thein Sein in Singapore provides just that. Obama has the clout and the confidence to back his convictions when it comes championing the cause of democratic freedom. At least that has been his political persona so far. Now is the time to prove it.
As far as Suu Kyi herself is concerned, she has already provided an extraordinary example of “civil courage” in Asia—as was cited by the Norwegian Nobel Committee while awarding her the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. But, unfortunately, her struggle is far from over. Pressing for more pressure and sanctions against a discredited military regime is just one option. However, what might work better is Obama’s well-calibrated policy of engagement—a sharp departure from previous US administrations. At least that is the fragile hope that Suu Kyi and her supporters must now be nurturing. Therein lies the key to the country’s future and the raison d’etre for continuing to fight for it.
Anand Sagar is Khaleej Times’ Foreign Editor, Professor Emeritus of the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media, Bangalore, and former Visiting Fellow, University of Oxford.