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Prospect – Aung San Suu Kyi

She is the west’s favourite political prisoner, a seraphic woman destined to lead her country. But have her unwavering moral standards now become an obstacle to political progress in Burma?

Everyone knows that Burma is in a mess. A nation once called the Golden Land in tribute to its giant gem pits has sold them off to the Chinese in return for guns and tanks. Thousands of miles of ancient hardwood forest have been torn down and replanted with opium fields. The once lush rice bowl of Asia can no longer feed itself. Millions of Burmese are addled by drugs and hundreds of thousands infected with HIV, while the general who serves as health minister assures them that “Aids is a foreign disease”. The regime has launched dozens of military campaigns against its people and more than one million of Burma’s 46 million-strong population are unaccounted for. Most people also know that Burma is the setting for an extraordinary political morality tale-Asia’s beauty and the beast. While the world’s most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been forced to fight for democracy behind the locked gates of her home in University Avenue in Rangoon, the country has been slowly strangled by a secretive junta whose fiscal policies are drawn up by astrologers.

There was thus great excitement on 9th January this year (2001) when the UN special envoy, Razali Ismail, announced that the State Peace and Development Council which runs Burma had agreed to talks with Sun Kyi. Western newspapers debated whether the talks – the first in five years – meant that she would finally be permitted to play a role in Burma’s future. Some reports even speculated that the junta had decided to recognise the results of the last election, held in May 1990, when Sun Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 out of 485 seats.

Six weeks after the special envoy’s announcement, another news item emerged from the news-shy country that appeared to bolster Suu Kyi’s position. A helicopter carrying 29 of Burma’s senior military men had plunged into the jungle north of Rangoon. Among the dead was one of Suu Kyi’s harshest critics who had called for her to be “crushed without mercy”; Lt Gen Tin Oo was a leading member of a hard line faction that opposed weakening the military’s grip.

What the state media did not reveal was that the crash on 19th February was no accident. According to US intelligence, there had been a gunfight inside the helicopter, one general firing upon another. Until then there had been only glimpses of a rumoured power struggle within the military elite such as the letter bomb that killed Tin Oo’s daughter in April 1997. In any case, Suu Kyi’s supporters took heart. Tin Oo’s death removed an obstacle to dialogue, leaving the junta’s reformist faction in command.

But another more startling story that has gone barely reported in the west is now beginning to emerge because of these same talks. Within the NLD and without, in pro-democracy newspapers, in Rangoon diplomatic circles and in the offices of NGOs that were previously unflinchingly loyal to Suu Kyi, it is now being said that she has failed to give direction to the democracy movement and lacks policy ideas or strategic grasp. She is even accused by some of her own MPs of being too committed to pacifism and western-style democracy to cut a deal in what are bound to be murky negotiations. There is growing concern that her years in isolation have made her haughty, distant and unwilling to listen.

Some of those who have raised these concerns have been ostracised and expelled from the NLD. But this has only prompted others to express their doubts in public. One of Suu Kyi’s former aides has accused her publicly of squandering the democracy movement’s momentum and of missing critical opportunities. Another, the party’s elder statesman and architect of the 1990 election victory, has followed suit. Moreover, Burma’s myriad ethnic groups – among them the Shan, Karen, Karenni, Chin, Arakanese – who rallied to Suu Kyi’s side in 1990, have also begun to turn their backs on the NLD, putting their case through their own jungle coalition.

The recent internal and external dissent follows years of persecution by a vindictive junta-known as the SLORC until advised to change its name by an American public relations consultancy. In Suu Kyi’s own 12 years of formal or informal house arrest, hundreds of party workers have been killed and her own husband, Michael Aris, died of cancer in England in 1999 having been refused a last visa to see her. (If she had left Burma to see him, she would never have been let back into the country.) Since 1990, more than 65 per cent of the NLD’s elected MPs and party members have resigned, been imprisoned or gone into exile. Tens of thousands of exhausted NLD supporters have just faded away. Now many in Rangoon privately fear that Sun Kyi will be unable to convince the generals that she still wields the kind of popular backing that has forced change so recently in Indonesia, Serbia and the Philippines.

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