In the Lewis Carroll world of Burmese politics, where nothing is at it seems and deadlock is the norm, any potentially positive news must be viewed cynically. Still, the announcement by the Burmese junta last month that it will release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest this November should be seen as a kind of progress.
Of course, Suu Kyi shouldn’t be under house arrest at all: Her most recent “crime” was to have had a crazy American tourist who claimed he’d seen a vision swim to her house. Still, the fact that the regime is considering her release is one of many signs that Burma, where nothing happened for so long, may have reached a turning point.
A number of looming crises present the regime with severe challenges. Having taken the fight to ethnic minority insurgent armies in northern and eastern Burma, the military now faces the prospect of renewed conflict across many parts of the country, undermining stability and the regime’s authority. China, Burma’s major patron, has become increasingly frustrated with the Burmese regime, which has failed to stanch the flow of drugs, HIV, and refugees pouring into China.
What’s more, the military’s senior leadership is aging, and wants to gain at least a veneer of international acceptance for its thuggish rule. Hence the recent decisions to hold elections this year to create a civilian government, to reach out to the United States (which, in a reversal from a decade of sanctions, is now cautiously engaging the junta), and, potentially, to release Suu Kyi.
Will the national elections result in great, immediate change? Some Burmese acquaintances believe that the elections will allow independent candidates, men and women not indebted to the regime, to win seats and, potentially, to challenge the government. This is a wildly unrealistic view: The military will stage-manage the election, make sure its preferred candidates take nearly every seat, and silence anyone who speaks too critically. In the national “referendum” last year on adopting a new constitution – a constitution essentially drafted by the military – there was so much fraud the results were totally unbelievable.
But events in Burma have a way of delivering unintended consequences. Though the elections won’t immediately result in much change, they might, on a local level, result in average people advocating more forcefully for their needs – the kind of advocacy that, eventually, might spark greater political consciousness and a rebirth of the opposition movement. Suu Kyi’s release, too, could backfire on the junta. Convinced, in the early 2000s, that the opposition leader no longer was a threat to the regime, the junta released her – and was shocked when, traveling upcountry, she attracted crowds in the tens of thousands, despite little advance publicity for her visits. If the regime releases Suu Kyi again, even if she is only allowed limited mobility, it runs a great risk.