The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
‘The Lady’ Lies in Wait
By AUNG ZAW NOVEMBER, 2010 - VOL.18, NO.11

Burma’s military rulers have taken the necessary steps to ensure that no opposition political party will challenge their proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, in the Nov. 7 election. But when the polls close, the generals and their cronies who occupy key positions in the  new government will once again face a threat in the person of Aung San Suu Kyi, known as “The Lady” in Burmese circles. It remains to be seen, however, just how formidable a threat the 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate will be.

Unnamed official sources in Burma said that Suu Kyi will be released from house arrest on Nov. 13, when her current period of detention expires. But whether the regime will actually free  her will depend on the whims of one person: Snr-Gen Than Shwe. The regime’s paramount leader sees Suu Kyi as a potential threat to national security, and if he believes she will continue to challenge the ruling class after she is freed, it is certain that he will find some pretext to extend her detention indefinitely.

If Than Shwe believes Suu Kyi’s power has been effectively muted and risks releasing her after the election, the people of Burma will rejoice. But they will also know better than to allow her release to raise their hopes and expectations, and their response will most likely be one of cautious optimism.

The most important thing people will watch for is whether Suu Kyi will be allowed to travel. When she was released in 1995, she and her fellow National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders were not allowed to travel outside of Rangoon. Every time they tried to do so they were followed and harassed by intelligence agents. In May 2003, junta leaders including Than Shwe were allegedly involved in giving the green light for an attack on Suu Kyi’s convoy that left many of her supporters dead.

People will also be very interested to know what the NLD leader’s strategy and future role will be if she is released. She will face a new political scene on the ground. Some of her closest allies and colleagues will not be around. Many have resigned from politics or passed away, while many others remain in Burma’s gulags. Some—notably Dr. Than Nyein and Khin Maung Swe—have deserted her disbanded party and formed a new party, the National Democratic Force (NDF), to contest the election.

Despite their break from the NLD, the leaders of the NDF say they still have a high regard for Suu Kyi’s shrewdness and integrity. In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy, Khin Maung Swe said the NDF is ready to follow her leadership toward the common goal of democracy and human rights in Burma, and he criticized NLD members who objected to the NDF’s use of Suu Kyi’s name in their political campaign.

“If NLD members want a monopoly over her name and want to narrowly confine her role as the leader of the NLD, then they are wrong,” he said. “The name of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is common property. She represents 50 million Burmese people.”

Some sources close to Suu Kyi have suggested that she and her colleagues could become more involved in social and humanitarian work, particularly in the fields of education and poverty eradication. If she moves in that direction, the regime leaders who see her as a direct political threat may be less intimidated and threatened. But she may find herself under attack from figures close to the regime who in recent years have moved to occupy the potentially lucrative “humanitarian space” being created by international aid groups eager to expand their presence in Burma. Indeed, some of these groups may be the first to pounce on her if they find her position on Western sanctions endangers their prospects for greater cooperation with the Burmese authorities.

In addition, in the absence of Suu Kyi and other prominent imprisoned political figures such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, several key political figures have emerged in Burma. They have traveled abroad, are well-connected to international organizations and have repeatedly called for the lifting of sanctions. Some international organizations and diplomats have even helped groom them to create an alternative Burmese political force in an attempt to change the political landscape. If Suu Kyi comes back to the political limelight, it is possible these figures will feel intimidated and attempt to sabotage Suu Kyi and whatever her post-release cause may be.

It remains to be seen how the NLD decision not to contest this year’s election will affect Suu Kyi’s ability to reach out to the generals. Although her party has been disbanded as a consequence of this decision, she herself remains enormously popular, both at home and abroad. If Suu Kyi is released, the Western democracies, the UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will most likely claim their share of the credit. But genuine progress will require the release not only of Suu Kyi, but also of the more than 2,000 other political prisoners, including more than 200 monks and nuns, still behind bars.

 The international community, including the US, are prepared to engage the new government in Burma. But it is unclear where Suu Kyi fits in with these discussions and whether she will find herself marginalized by the process.

Her first move after being released will be critical. If Suu Kyi decides to remain a mainstream political leader she will have to take a serious look at reform in her own circle, which would include: nurturing a new generation of pro-democracy leaders; shaking up the NLD executives who have steadfastly held the opposition flag in her absence; and reaching out to her skeptics, critics and political opponents in order to embark on political reconciliation.

Critics of Suu Kyi say that her repeated calls for dialogue with the regime have fallen on deaf ears because she has no stick with which to force her adversaries to come to the negotiating table. In addition, some dissidents say that Suu Kyi does not possess the qualities that made her father, independence hero Gen Aung San, so effective in his struggle against the British. Many feel that she is not decisive enough and that she lacks the political astuteness that is needed to defeat the generals. After 22 years of nonviolent struggle under Suu Kyi’s leadership, some Burmese are increasingly inclined to believe that any transition to genuine democracy will be a bloody one.

 It is safe to say, however, that Suu Kyi will always be seen as a democracy icon who will continue to challenge the regime and speak out for truth and against injustice in Burma. She remains the face of the democratic movement and the symbol of struggle against the brutal regime. But while her status could give her some leverage, past experience suggests it will be limited. She and her pro-democracy colleagues must begin to think outside their historical box and create a new strategy for bringing change to Burma in the post-election environment.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |