The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
COMMENTARY
The Release of Aung San Suu Kyi: A Dilemma for Whom?
By AUNG NAING OO Friday, April 9, 2004

"It appears that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be freed soon," a Western journalist who recently returned from Burma told a Burmese dissident leader living in exile. If true, it would be a welcome sign from the talks in Rangoon. But the Burmese leader was skeptical. He had heard similar rumors in the past. These days, facts are a rare commodity, while rumors about the dialogue between the Burmese generals and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi continue to circulate as freely as Burma’s nearly worthless currency. Indeed, the substance of the talks remains a well-kept secret, and nothing concrete is known outside 54 University Avenue in Rangoon, where two previously hostile parties are locked in a series of negotiations. Desperate and hungry for details about a process that could change the course of a nation’s history, ordinary people are understandably prone to speculate about the talks. But the validity of every rumor and the value of each scrap of news that reaches us must be assessed in the light of the known facts, and not on the basis of wishful thinking. The release of Aung San Suu Kyi: Is it imminent, or still a long way off? She will have to be released eventually, but nobody has any idea when. However, this eventuality—though still highly unlikely at the moment—appears to be at least a bit closer to becoming a reality following the releases of a number of other high-profile political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s cousin and aide U Aye Win, who is also the older brother of exiled Prime Minister Dr Sein Win. But what would her release mean for the top brass of the Burmese armed forces? More importantly, what would it mean for Aung San Suu Kyi herself? And how would the people of Burma react to this news under the present circumstances? All these and other questions must be answered before we can make a more realistic assessment of the prospects for her release in the near future. The Burmese generals call Aung San Suu Kyi their little sister. Yet until the talks began late last year, she was treated like a despised pariah in the state-run news media. On the other hand, every honor or show of respect bestowed upon her, whether by ordinary Burmese or by the international community, served as a reminder to the generals of their precarious hold on power. They feared her defiant speeches, which reminded the Burmese of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero General Aung San. Professions of fraternal affection aside, they have sought at every turn to sideline and belittle her. More significantly, the Burmese generals have not forgotten how thousands of people showed up at her election campaign rallies before her incarceration in 1989, in complete defiance of their military decrees. But most important of all, the military government has not forgotten that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in the 1990 election. Experience tells the generals that they are no match for Aung San Suu Kyi’s magic. With her popularity at home and her international recognition, she is untouchable. Without a doubt, freeing Aung San Suu Kyi would not only give the junta a major headache, but could also endanger their very existence. The generals therefore will think more than twice before releasing her. For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be comfortable with her detention. Quietly, she appears to have acknowledged that the secret negotiations are more likely to succeed if she remains incommunicado. The contents of the talks are sensitive, and any untimely disclosure of the details could do more harm than good. Therefore, her continued detention has made it easier for her to avoid divulging more than she might really want to in order to satisfy a clambering press and public. Political activists may demand her release, but it must be acknowledged that her present situation may be more conducive to pursuing a negotiated settlement with the regime. Most importantly, Aung San Suu Kyi is unlikely to leave the negotiation table without a deal she can sell to the Burmese people. She cannot afford to go back to square one—a lose-lose situation. The people of Burma will want to know what fruit the negotiations have borne when she emerges from her long period of seclusion. The international community will also expect to see results. Her political career and personal integrity may be at stake, and she could be accused of depriving the democracy movement of its momentum. Her release would have posed no problem for her if there had been no dialogue; but now, she has reason to want to remain cut off from direct contact with the outside world. This may account for reports that she has told visiting dignitaries that she is comfortable being under detention. Thus it is clear that the prospect of her release creates a dilemma not just for the generals, but also for Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Although it may deepen the generals’ crisis, both sides are well aware of their own weaknesses and are likely to hold on to the negotiations, which offer the best available alternative to the more confrontational approach taken in the past. The timing of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest therefore rests with the outcome of the ongoing negotiations. When she is finally freed, perhaps along with other top leaders and political prisoners currently under detention, it will certainly be an indication that the two sides have reached a compromise. Until that fateful moment arrives, however, rumors of her release will serve only as an expression of the Burmese people’s determination to keep their hopes alive. Aung Naing Oo is a Burmese political analyst based in exile.

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