For thousands of activists around the world, the reality is still sinking in: Aung San Suu Kyi is a free woman (at least as free as anyone can ever be in Burma). The moment she left her compound to an enormous, euphoric crowd will live long in the memory of everyone who has ever taken part in the five decade long struggle for Burmese democracy and human rights. It will become a historic milestone for the nation – and for the future of its sixty million people.
Yet amid the joy and celebration many questions are ringing out amongst the commentators, politicians and ordinary people watching these incredible events unfold. And of these the most significant seems to be: why is the dictatorship allowing this? Considering their utter disregard for international law, moral decency or democratic progress – why are the Generals releasing the one person most likely to bring about their downfall? The answer seemingly lies in a series of enormous political miscalculations that could well provide an enormous or even decisive boost for the democracy movement.
Firstly Than Shwe and his cronies were of the misplaced belief that Suu Kyi’s release – a week after their sham election – would give them some credibility on the international stage and even lead to foreign governments accepting the rigged result (an 80% victory for their proxy party- the USDP). They thought that the combination of an election and such a high-profile release would portray them as progressive and democratic, alleviating pressure and earning them legitimacy.
They also believed that after spending fifteen of the past twenty-one years in some form of detention (either under house arrest or locked in the notorious Insein Jail) Suu Kyi would be out of touch and irrelevant in Burmese politics. Given that her detachment and isolation had taken an enormously heavy toll on her party- the NLD- as well as the wider democratic movement, the Generals presumed that she would emerge as a spent force with little influence on the contemporary struggle for freedom, sidelined in the wake of the elections she boycotted and the decision by some democratic candidates to take part.
This links neatly to their final faux par – namely the presumption that, given the NLD-NDF split (with the latter breaking from the former to contest the vote), Suu Kyi’s reappearance could exacerbate divisions within the democracy movement. It was most likely their deepest hope that the handful NDF candidates who actually won seats would resent the new Parliament being dismissed as a façade by someone who played no part in the election.
On every count the dictatorship got it wrong.
Even before they signed the release papers, the script was not panning out as they planned. Worldwide condemnation of the election had combined with defections by formerly pro-junta militia; first in the Karen then the Shan regions. The political landscape that the Generals were letting Suu Kyi re-enter was not nearly as neatly stitched-up as they wanted it. Neither was the world ready to congratulate her captors for ending a sentence that should never have been imposed in the first place; with the usual exceptions (including China and Vietnam), the response of international leaders consisted of praise for Suu Kyi followed by calls for the release of the remaining political prisoners.
Further early signs that the junta had mis-read the scenario came as thousands of people rushed first to Suu Kyi’s lakeside home to await her release and then –in even greater numbers- to the NLD headquarters to hear her speak the following day. Notably many of those cheering and celebrating in the streets were too young to have been involved in the democracy movement during her last brief spell of freedom in 2002-2003. Though hidden from the world for so long she is clearly still regarded by Burmese people up and down the country (and indeed across the globe) as their rightful leader. To anyone watching the celebrating crowds that NLD staff had to physically push apart for her to reach the headquarters, the perception that she could ever have become irrelevant was incomprehensible.
Subsequent speeches- in which Suu Kyi expressed a desire to listen and learn from the movement from which she had been forcibly separated, reinforced her connection with the people. Furthermore it quickly became clear that her years in detention were far from wasted; listening to the BBC World Service for hours each day she had carefully monitored and analysed the situation before emerging ready to lead once again. This should come as no surprise to the Generals; after all, in previous short releases Suu Kyi had been completely up-to-date with developments and more than prepared to re-enter the political fray without hesitation.
Their hopes of her release breeding discourse in democratic ranks will also fall flat. The NLD members who broke off to contest elections as the NDF always remained loyal to Suu Kyi – even though they disagreed with her decision to boycott, whilst their rejection of the final result will only draw both factions closer together once again. In fact, it is highly possible that those NDF candidates who won seats will now seek guidance from Suu Kyi, increasing rather than diminishing her role in Burmese politics.
Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, within her first 48 hours of freedom Suu Kyi has called for ethnic unity- proposing a second Panglong Conference (following the one convened by her father in 1947 with the intention of creating ethnic equality in newly independent Burma). Widely regarded as the only leader able to unite the state’s plethora of ethnic groups, Suu Kyi’s efforts in this area could genuinely herald a new era of united opposition to the dictatorship, especially considering the growing dissatisfaction of those ethnic militias that previously took the junta’s side.
Finally, any rabble-rousing that could provide the Generals with an excuse to detain her once again was cleverly avoided. Calls for a peaceful revolution were combined with offers to negotiate with the junta, amazingly including the USDP (whose predecessor –the USDA tried to kill her in 2003.) Her open-minded stance on sanctions will also catch Than Shwe and co off guard. As the only political player able to convince foreign governments to drop them, Suu Kyi’s decisions are inherently linked to Burma’s economic situation and thus she has enormous power to pull the Generals to the negotiating table.
Aung San Suu Kyi- and the entire movement for democracy and human rights in Burma – have a long hard path ahead; but her release may prove a turning point in a struggle where not so long ago the outlook was depressingly bleak. The leader is finally free, now for the other 2200 political prisoners….and then Burma itself.