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Suu Kyi

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Burma: Not A “Mandela Moment”

14 November 2010

Burma: Not A “Mandela Moment”

By Gwynne Dyer

People love historical analogies, so it’s easy to think of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest on Saturday as Burma’s “Mandela moment.” When Nelson Mandela was freed from 27 years of imprisonment in 1990, it marked the start of a process that saw the negotiated end of the apartheid regime and genuinely free elections in only four years. Maybe that sort of thing will now happen in Burma too.

That would be nice, but it would be unwise to bet the farm on it. “The Lady”, as everybody in Burma calls her, has the same combination of saintly forbearance and tough political realism that enabled Nelson Mandela to lead the transition to democracy so successfully in South Africa, but her situation is very different.

Mandela emerged from prison to assume the leadership of a powerful, disciplined mass movement, whereas Suu Kyi must start by picking up the pieces of a party that has split and lost focus during her seven years of house arrest. Its leaders are almost all elderly men, and there is no younger generation of leaders in sight.

South Africa was utterly isolated politically, and its economy was crumbling under the impact of sanctions. The Burmese regime has diplomatic relations with its trading partners in Southeast Asia and a very powerful supporter in China. Burmese living standards are dramatically lower than those in neighbouring countries due to forty years of corrupt and incompetent military rule, but the economy is growing.

And the most important difference: when South Africa’s President F.W. de Klerk freed Mandela in 1990, he already knew that the apartheid regime was doomed. He wanted to negotiate a non-violent transition to a democratic system that would preserve a place for South Africa’s white minority, and Mandela was the best negotiating partner he could hope for.

The regime that has just released Aung San Suu Kyi, by contrast, does not think it has lost, and a transition to a genuinely democratic system is the last thing on its mind. It has just finished an elaborate charade of elections (nine-tenths of the candidates were government-backed) under a new constitution (one-quarter of the parliamentary seats are reserved for the armed forces). It already has all the democracy it wants.

Why did Burma’s military rulers even bother to construct a pseudo-democratic facade like this? After all, their power really rests on their willingness, demonstrated again only three years ago, to kill unarmed civilian protesters in the streets. They don’t care about being loved, so long as they are feared.

But they are as concerned about preserving the country’s independence as any other Burmese, and that makes it desirable to end Western sanctions against the regime. They are hugely dependent on China as an investor and a market for their raw materials, and that is not a comfortable position for any Burmese to be in.

“When China spits, Burma swims,” says the old proverb. If Aung Sang Suu Kyi can persuade the Western powers to end sanctions against Burma – and she has already hinted that she will help – then the regime can use better relations with the West to counterbalance China’s overweening influence in the country.

Obviously, the regime is betting that it can use “The Lady” in ending sanctions without risking its own hold on power, and perhaps it is right. She faces a hard task in rebuilding her party, which split over the question of whether to participate in the recent bogus election. Even if she succeeds, the generals can always arrest her again and lock her away for as many years as they like. Who would stop them? But they could still lose their bet.

The citation for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize in 1991 called her a shining example of “the power of the powerless,” and that power is real. It could be seen in the adoring crowds who came out to see her when she was freed: after seven years of invisibility, her appeal to two generations of Burmese who have lived under the boots of the military regime all their lives is undimmed.

Like Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa, or Vaclav Havel in Communist Czechoslovakia, or Mohandas Gandhi in colonial India, she is a realist about power and fear. “People have been saying I know nothing of Burmese politics,” she said when she was first drawn into politics during the non-violent protest movement of 1988. “The trouble is, I know too much.” And the 1988 protests were duly drowned in blood.

But she also knows that Mandela and Havel and Gandhi eventually won. They all had to accept that the guilty would go unpunished, for otherwise the outgoing regime would fight until the very last ditch. They also understood that negotiating with the enemy is necessary, and so does she. As she said in 1997: “I would like to set strongly the precedent that you bring about political change through political settlement and not through violence.”

Despite all that, those other heroes of non-violence got what they were really struggling for in the end: a free and democratic country. And Aung San Suu Kyi could ultimately achieve that too, even though it is hard to see from here the precise route that might lead her to that goal.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“Mandela…sight”; and “But she…violence”)

The Lady Is Still in Jail

26 June 2003

The Lady Is Still in Jail

By Gwynne Dyer

“The military regime is very worried that they are facing a Cory Aquino-type of people-power movement, and basically, they’ve panicked,” explained a foreign diplomat in Rangoon shortly after a mob of government-sponsored thugs attacked Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade at Dipeyin, north-east of Mandalay, on 30 May. Around seventy of her supporters were killed, she was beaten up — and she and nineteen members of the National League for Democracy who were travelling with her were taken into temporary protective custody’. A month later, the Lady’ — as everyone in Burma calls her — is still in Insein prison in Rangoon.

She has been under some form of restraint, mostly house arrest, for almost all of the past thirteen years, as her children grew up without her and her husband died without even being allowed a farewell visit to Burma, but it has never been as bad as this. The military regime has realised that all its wealth and power are on the line right now, and the gloves have come off. But alone in her cell, still wearing the same blouse and skirt she was arrested in a month ago, she remains the most influential person in Burma. The generals have the guns and the money, but she has the legitimacy.

She has earned it by her patience and self-sacrifice — but also through the regime’s blunder thirteen years ago in allowing free elections in Burma. The generals calculated that they could bribe or bully a majority of Burma’s 45 million people into voting for their candidates, but when the counting was over in 1990 Suu Kyi and the NLD had won by a landslide: 82 percent of the votes. The army immediately cancelled’ the results and arrested all of the NLD’s leaders, but it never got over the effects of that mistake. And now it has made the same mistake again.

The confrontation between Suu Kyi and the generals began fifteen years ago, when the original tyrant, the half-crazed Ne Win, precipitated a crisis by resigning after more than two decades in power. His bizarre and isolationist version of socialism’ had reduced the once-prosperous country to penury, and his aim was to transfer formal power to a more respectable elected government while retaining real control. But Aung San Suu Kyi happened to be in Burma in 1988, home from her quiet life as an academic and mother in England to nurse her dying mother.

She had lived most of her life abroad, the inevitable consequence of being the only daughter of Burma’s great independence hero Aung San, who was assassinated when she was only two. But in 1988 South-East Asia was in political ferment: the example of the non-violent democratic revolution led by Cory Aquino in the Philippines in 1986 had already spread to Thailand and Bangladesh, toppling long-ruling military regimes, and now threatened the control of the Burmese military as well. Suu Kyi’s name made her invaluable to the pro-democracy campaigners, and she quickly became the symbol of the whole movement.

After three months the generals, realising that events were spinning out of control, took back power and authorised the massacre of thousands of students and other citizens in the streets of Rangoon. Then in 1990 the regime held a carefully stage-managed election’ to gain some international respectability — but the NLD won by a landslide, the regime refused to recognise its victory, and Burma has been in deadlock ever since. So last year a new generation of generals tried to square the circle again: they released Suu Kyi from house arrest in the hope that they could end all the foreign boycotts and rejoin the world without actually giving up power.

It never seemed like a good idea to General Than Shwe, the current head of the junta (who virtually froths at the mouth whenever the Lady’s name is mentioned), but he was talked into it by other senior generals led by Khin Nyunt, the influential head of intelligence. Thirteen months after she was released from house arrest, however, it turns out that Than Shwe was right: neither Suu Kyi nor the Burmese people were satisfied with tokenism, and the regime’s power and privileges really were at risk.

The NLD tiptoed through the first months after Aung San’s release, anxious not to derail the process of democratisation by too much open campaigning, but as it became clear that the generals were just looking for political cover it changed its style. In the last six months Aung San has been making open anti-regime speeches up and down the country, and every month the crowds have got bigger. The regime had to stop her or it was toast, so a month ago the thugs were unleashed to stage a massacre that would provide a pretext for the Lady’s arrest.

That has stopped the protests for the moment, but the regime is back where it was, loathed by foreigners and Burmese alike. How long can it hold out against the united disapproval of practically everyone? Quite a long time, if the past is any guide — and one should not expect a split between the top generals over this bungle. They know that they must hang together or else they will hang separately (probably literally, in some cases, for some of them have much Burmese blood on their hands).

Aung San Suu Kyi will need all of her patience.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“She has…again”; and “It never…at risk”)

NOTE: The renaming of Burma as Myanmar’ and of Rangoon as Yangon’ in 1989 was a cynical ploy by the military regime intended to win the support of Burmese nationalists, and is not recognised by the democratic opposition.

Burma: Free At Last?

9 December 2002

Burma: Free At Last?

By Gwynne Dyer

One should not speak ill of the dead, but an exception is justified in the case of Burma’s late dictator Ne Win. He was responsible for almost forty years of tyranny and poverty in his country, and most Burmese would gladly dance on his ashes if it were allowed. By the time he died at 91 on 5 December, however, the process of undoing his malignant legacy was well underway.

Last May, Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who is as much the symbol of democracy in Burma as Nelson Mandela was in apartheid South Africa, was freed from house arrest by the generals who are Ne Win’s successors. “My release should not be looked on as a major breakthrough for democracy,” Suu Kyi warned — but she added: “I would cautiously say that where we are is better than where we have ever been.”

Even as he neared death, Ne Win tried to kill the hope for democracy in Burma: his son-in-law and three grandsons were arrested last March while trying to organise a coup that would have unseated his successors and aborted the talks for Suu Kyi’s freedom. They were sentenced to be hanged, and Ne Win died a lonely and unhonoured death this month under house arrest at his home on a lake in central Rangoon — just across the lake, in fact, from the house where Suu Kyi had been confined for so long. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Other South-East-Asian countries also had liberation heroes who turned into monsters and blighted their people’s lives — Indonesia’s Sukarno and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh spring to mind — but none lasted so long or did as much damage as General Ne Win. One of the legendary ‘Thirty Comrades’ who began Burma’s war for freedom from Britain, he overthrew the country’s shaky democracy in 1962 and ruled with an iron hand for the next 28 years.

Ne Win was so superstitious that he once replaced the country’s existing paper currency with 45-kyat and 90-kyat notes because nine was his lucky number. He was so suspicious of foreigners that he walled Burma off from almost all outside contact, imposing an erratic ‘Burmese Road to Socialism’ that turned the region’s richest country into its poorest in only three decades. And then, when popular protests broke out in 1988, he abruptly resigned.

A new kind of non-violent democratic revolution was toppling dictators all across Asia in the late 80s — in the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, South Korea — and Burma was swept along. So was Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s greatest independence hero Aung San.

Long settled in Britain with her English husband and their two sons, Suu Kyi just happened to go home that year to nurse her dying mother. To most Burmese her father, who had been assassinated when she was just two, was still the most powerful symbol of the future that had been betrayed, and so she suddenly found herself leading a democratic revolution. Then the frightened generals massacred thousands of citizens in the streets of Rangoon to save their power, Ne Win came back to power in another coup, and Suu Kyi discovered her destiny.

Ne Win’s new junta opened the country to foreign investment in an attempt to revive the devastated economy, and so much oil and timber money poured in that the regime was emboldened to hold an election in 1990. But the brief burst of prosperity changed nobody’s mind: 82 percent of the voters backed Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy against the generals. So Ne Win simply refused to accept the election’s outcome, jailed most of the NLD’s elected members, and embarked on a long duel with Suu Kyi (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991) over the future of Burma.

Knowing she would never be allowed back into Burma if she left, she remained in Rangoon, mostly under house arrest, while her children grew up without her. Her husband eventually died of cancer without even being allowed a visit to say goodbye. The military regime’s propaganda called her a “foreign stooge” and a “genocidal prostitute”, but most ordinary Burmese know her simply as ‘The Lady’, and trust her completely.

The ageing Ne Win eventually withdrew from power, leaving three lesser generals to carry on the struggle against democracy. But Burma’s economic plight grew ever worse as a trade embargo by democratic countries tightened during the later 90s, and early this year the junta decided to seek a deal with Suu Kyi. Ne Win, in character to the end, tried one last coup to stop it, but Suu Kyi was released seven months ago, and Burma began to emerge from the long darkness.

What is going on now is a delicate and secretive process in which the repressive regime negotiates a safe exit from power and an indemnity for its past crimes — rather like the first year after Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in South Africa. As General Khin Nyunt put it in August, “The democracy that we seek to build…will surely be based on universal principles of liberty, justice and equality…(but) such a transition cannot be done in haste and in a haphazard manner.”

Aung San Suu Kyi concedes that after all this time it cannot simply be a matter of handing power over to the NLD government that was legally elected in 1990. But, she adds, “who’s to say we won’t get a bigger majority this time?”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Knowing…darkness”)

NOTE that the country’s proper name in English is Burma. ‘Myanmar’ was imposed by the military junta in an attempt to wrap themselves in the flag, and is shunned by the democratic opposition.