Sunday, May 01, 2005

Myanmar junta unlikely to release Suu Kyi

The New Straits Times
May 19 2004

By Thang D. Nguyen

THE prospects for the release of Myanmar’s democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi are looking good, but for all we know, this might be just another move by the junta in a cat-and-mouse game.

The junta held a convention on Monday to draft a constitution as part of a road map towards democracy. It had also said that it would release Aung San Suu Kyi — who won the 1991 Nobel Peace prize — but would not identify a specific date.

In response, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), of which Aung San Suu Kyi is the chairman, insisted on her release as a condition for its participation in the convention.

"We have not decided on what to do about the national convention, but we need to have all our leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi and vice-chairman Tin Oo free first," NLD central executive committee member Soe Myint was quoted by Reuters as saying. "Only then will we discuss this matter among ourselves and then make a final decision," he continued.

But soon enough, the junta backed down on its decision to release the Nobel laureate. Its decision should not come as a surprise, given the nature of such regimes. Aung San Suu Kyi is its ace card in this game and, therefore, it is unwilling and unable to release her.

In other words, once it frees her, the junta will be left with nothing to base its demands upon with which to demand from and negotiate with the NLD and representatives of the international community, such as Malaysian diplomat Tan Sri Razali Ismail, who has been appointed as the UN envoy to work with the regime on her release and other efforts to bring democracy to the nation.

The junta, whose real leader was General Ne Win, knows the price it will have to pay if it releases Aung San Suu Kyi for good: democracy. For this reason, since 1989, the military has put her under house arrest in a renewable one-year term. The military regime will do whatever it takes to ensure that Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father was the independence hero of Myanmar, the NLD and her constituents will not gain the momentum to bring about democracy.

The junta does not want to see the democratic movement that happened in Indonesia in 1998-99, for instance, to happen in Myanmar. In 1998, Indonesian students and activists drove Suharto out of power after three decades of dictatorship, corruption, and cronyism, and in 1999 Indonesia held its first democratic election, in which President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) triumphed over Golkar, the party of Suharto and his cronies.

To be sure, Indonesia's democratic triumph would not have been possible, had it not been for the devastating impact on the Indonesian economy of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. As an old saying has it, "hunger makes anger", and that provided the momentum, the energy, and the pretext that ignited and brought about democracy in Indonesia.

For such a dynamic movement to take place in Myanmar, perhaps the people would need to go through an economic crisis as the Indonesians did in the Asian financial crisis. This will not happen to Myanmar, however. The reason is that, unlike the Indonesian economy, which is open to the world economy and financial system and had become a newly industrialised economy right before the Asian financial crisis, Myanmar's economy remains an isolated socialistic system to this day. Economics is a game of dilemma, risks and gains: If one doesn't play, one can't win, but if one plays, one can get hurt.

Aung San Suu Kyi's followers and many others from the international community are keeping their fingers crossed for her release. They hope that she will soon be freed and that some day democracy will come to Myanmar. Unfortunately, as long as the junta is in power, their hopes will be more like a dream deferred. Hope, to paraphrase Francis Bacon, is a good breakfast, but it serves a poor dinner: It is just not enough.

The writer is a Jakarta-based political analyst and public relations consultant. He has published several books on Southeast Asia.


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