The generals vs Suu Kyi - battle resumes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 November, 2010, 12:00am

With all signs pointing to the imminent release of Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, she's likely to find herself living in a gilded cage.

The same generals who have ordered her release, scheduled for as early as today, are unlikely to tolerate any significant public role for the woman they have kept detained on and off for 15 of the past 21 years.

Irrespective of the first national elections in 20 years - held last Sunday - the generals still have constitutional sway.

She remains a potent force in Myanmese politics, but her release will again pit her against junta leader Senior General Than Shwe, who cannot abide even hearing her name.

'Than Shwe is only interested in preserving his own power and must have decided she no longer posed a problem to him after the election last weekend,' said Maung Zarni, a Myanmese researcher at the London School of Economics.

Suu Kyi was sentenced to 18 months' house arrest after a court convicted her in August last year of breaching the terms of her house arrest when American John Yettaw swam uninvited to her lakeside house and briefly stayed there.

Most diplomats in Yangon and analysts agree the primary aim of her current stint under house arrest was to effectively keep her out of the country's current political process.

'Aung San Suu Kyi's extended house arrest was quite obviously designed to coincide with the conclusion of the elections,' said Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher for Amnesty International in Bangkok. 'And all indications are that they achieved the desired results, making her continued detention unnecessary.'

Last time she was released in May 2002 more than a thousand supporters camped outside the headquarters of Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), near the Shwedagon Pagoda to greet her. When she toured the country, thousands turned up to hear her speak.

The junta fears the 65-year-old's Nobel Peace Prize laureate's charisma and popularity, US-based Myanmese academic Win Min said. 'It was shortly after the monks [leading the 2007 anti-government demonstrations] paid homage outside Aung San Suu Kyi's houses that the army cracked down. She is also the only one who could also appeal to the ethnic minorities.'

The years of detention have not dimmed her immense popularity or her commitment to bringing democracy to Myanmar.

'The energy is still there. The commitment is still there,' said Andrew Heyn, Britain's ambassador to Myanmar who met Suu Kyi last year during her trial. 'She's well informed, she's committed, and the message I got when I spoke to her - not only by what she said but her body language ...[was]: this is a woman who wants to stay involved.'

Clearly she is going to try to resume her political activities when she finally walks free from her house. She was instrumental in the NLD's decision not re-register as a party, and so it was barred from taking part in the elections. She also urged people to boycott the elections.

Under her instructions the NLD did monitor the polls and have since complained of fraud and manipulation. The party has set up its own committee to investigate fraud allegations, said Win Tin, the 81-year-old elder NLD spokesman who spent more than 19 years in Insein Prison.

Win Tin said Suu Kyi would be actively involved in the fraud investigation and give advice when she was released. This news won't have impressed the top generals, Justin Wintle a biographer of the democracy leader said. 'This will hardly help her cause and I fear an own goal there,' he said. 'But one thing is for sure, she won't be allowed to get on the campaign trail again.'

Most of the party's senior members who congregated at NLD headquarters yesterday are looking forward to being reunited with their inspirational leader and planning the party's future course.

'We will need to discuss many things,' Win Tin said. 'We will also be examining the impact sanctions have had on the people before deciding what the future policy should be.'

The question of sanctions against the regime has divided the international community. The West has imposed strident penalties while Myanmar's neighbours and allies, mostly in Asia, argue that such measures are ineffective.

Suu Kyi promised the junta leader in a letter to him last September that she was prepared to consider helping the Myanmese government to have sanctions against them eased. This would be welcomed by the regime - but it would only come in return for the start of genuine political dialogue involving the pro-democracy movement.

On the eve of her release, Suu Kyi appeared to be again trying to rekindle hopes that once she is released, she and the NLD could be part of a national reconciliation process.

'What we've always said is that dialogue is not a competition,' Suu Kyi told this writer in Yangon more than seven years ago, shortly before she was detained again.

'We don't want a dialogue in order to find out who is the better person, or which is the smarter organisation. We have always said that the only winner, if we settle down to negotiations, the only winner, will be the country.'