Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is free again; the strength of her support undiminished by the long spell of her detention. More than 40,000 people came out on the streets last weekend to get a glimpse of the 65-year-old Nobel peace prize laureate. The excitement and euphoria was intoxicating, diplomats at the gate of her home last Saturday told Outlook. The response of Mae, a 17-year-old university student in Yangon, was typical: “I am so excited that Suu Kyi is free. She has been under house arrest for most of my life, now we hope things are going to change here.” Several jubilant students even rated her release as the most exciting moment in their lives.
Comparisons can be odious, but observers noted that the crowds that flocked the National League for Democracy building to greet Suu Kyi were greater than those who turned up to celebrate her earlier release, on May 6, 2002. A significant proportion of those on the streets this time were young people who were barely aware of her existence in 2002. “I wasn’t interested in politics before the November 7 elections,” said Moe Myat, another student from Yangon. “Now I want to learn everything I can about the situation in my country, and Daw Suu can certainly help us change the country for the better.”
But do not mistake the release of Suu Kyi as Myanmar’s Mandela moment. There are significant differences between the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and that of Suu Kyi in Myanmar. Mandela’s walk to freedom was preceded by an agreement between him and then president of the apartheid-era South Africa, F.W. de Klerk. It was because of this agreement that Mandela’s release saw South Africa take a decisive turn—the apartheid system was dismantled to spawn a multiracial democratic system.
But the military junta leader, Than Shwe, is no de Klerk. Nor was the release of Suu Kyi preceded by an agreement similar to Klerk’s with Mandela, underwriting a democratic system guaranteeing rights to people. This is precisely why Hkun Htun, a Shan teacher in the north of the country, isn’t enthused: “We have had our hopes raised time and time again, only to have them dashed by the military junta—why should anything be different this time?”
Gen Than Shwe, experts contend, never does anything that is not in his interests. Maung Zarni of the London School of Economics, who has had long personal contact with many of the generals and their families says, “Than Shwe is only interested in extending his grip on power and protecting his economic interests and that of his family.” Many fear that her release is just a ploy to deflect international attention, particularly that of the United States. They feel the military regime is likely to lock Suu Kyi up should it feel threatened again. As Philippines foreign minister Alberto Romulo told Outlook at the recent asean summit in Hanoi, “As soon as she speaks out they will put her back in prison—so to speak.”
Suu Kyi is now trying to forge alliances with all opposition movements, hoping to put in place a people’s network.
Such fears perhaps best explain Suu Kyi’s remarks on her release from custody. As she told her mesmerised audience, “I will continue my efforts to bring about national reconciliation, and I need the support of our people. You have to stand up for what is right. If we want to get what we want, we have to do it in the right way; otherwise we will not achieve our goal, however noble or correct it may be.” It was a tightrope walk—she urged her voters not to eschew hope even as she was extremely conciliatory towards the military junta, consciously avoiding any inadvertent provocation. As she said, “I hope they (the military) won’t feel threatened by me. Popularity is something that comes and goes. I don’t think anyone should feel threatened by it.” The day after her release, she told journalists in Yangon that the best way forward was to sit down with Gen Than Shwe. “Let’s speak to each other directly,” she said. So far there has been no response.
Suu Kyi has also carefully avoided commenting on Myanmar’s first elections in 20 years two weeks ago which the pro-junta party—the United Solidarity and Development Party—reportedly won convincingly, though all the other parties have complained of massive electoral fraud. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) refused to re-register as a political party and was barred from the elections.
But the democracy icon steadfastly stood by her principles: “I believe in human rights and I believe in the rule of law.... I want to work with all democratic forces and I need the support of the people.” When she met the NLD leaders for the first time in over six years on Saturday, she said she would like to know the people’s genuine desire. Says a senior NLD member, Ohn Kyaing, “She told us we need to get in touch with the people.”
Her own desire to build alliances, to gauge the mood of the people cautiously, is in contrast to her popular deification. Zinn Lin, a spokesman for the pro-democracy movement and a former political prisoner, says, “Now she is out the whole country will rise up and follow her.” Adds the US-based Myanmar academic, Win Min, “The junta can cow everyone but not Suu Kyi.” Similarly, Zarni says, “She has become an institution and the public will rally around her as long as she’s alive.”
To conceive her future plan, Suu Kyi has been meeting with leaders of other political parties—including the breakaway National Democratic Force (NDF), which contested the elections—leaders of ethnic groups and members of the NLD youth wing. She is trying to forge alliances and coalitions with all opposition movements, hoping to establish a people’s network to coordinate information and plan any future action. To reach out to the country’s young, Suu Kyi wants to set up a Twitter account. She now has a mobile phone—her first ever—and may be having trouble operating it, a senior NLD official confided to Outlook.
Seven years ago, shortly before she was brutally attacked by pro-government thugs and ended up in detention, she had told this correspondent: “I feel a great attachment to India—because of the time I spent there. We all love to watch Hindi movies—Bollywood is better suited to Myanmar’s cultural sensitivities.”
For the moment, though, she is probably too busy to watch Hindi movies, for the pressure is on The Lady—as the junta refers to her—to make a difference, something she couldn’t bring about after her release on the last two occasions.