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Suu Kyi Steps up the Pressure

by Joshua Kurlantzick
June 7, 2011

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at a ceremony to welcome and acknowledge released political prisoners at the National League for Democracy (NLD) head office in Yangon May 27, 2011.

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at a ceremony to welcome and acknowledge released political prisoners at the National League for Democracy (NLD) head office in Yangon May 27, 2011. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

According to numerous Burmese sources, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is planning to travel outside Rangoon within the next month in order to visit provinces, help rebuild her political movement, and generally gauge the political situation. This travel will show whether the regime, following the elections last fall and the civilianization of Myanmar’s cabinet of ministers, really has changed its stripes at all.  With Suu Kyi essentially stuck in Rangoon, the regime could claim legitimacy, and given Myanmar’s poor infrastructure and communications networks, it could essentially prevent her from reaching an audience across the country.

But traveling outside the largest city is a far different matter. Over the past twenty years, most of which Suu Kyi has spent under various forms of house arrest, every time she has tried to travel outside the capital the regime has pushed back hard. In the mid-1990s, it arrested Suu Kyi before she could even really get outside Rangoon; in the early 2000s, after she had managed to travel outside Rangoon and give a number of well-attended rallies in other parts of Burma, regime thugs attacked Suu Kyi’s party on a rural road and massacred them, killing as many as eighty people.

In fact, despite its authoritarian rule, the regime has repeatedly underestimated Suu Kyi’s enduring drawing power. In the early 2000s, it was clearly shocked by the size of the crowds she was able to draw upcountry, a major reason why it decided to brutally curtail her further travels. If she ventures out this time, and draws crowds again, what will the government do? More than anything since last year, this will be the crucial test of whether Burma is changing at all.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Don Jameson

    The issue should not be whether Burma is changing, which all who know the country well understand is very unlikely in any near term time frame. The relevant question is whether the approach being taken by the international commumity, and particularly its western members, of attempting to isolate Burma through sanctions is the most effective way of encouraging change. The evidence of the past 20 years strongly suggests that it is not but this message seems lost on those who continue to propose more of the same. To the extent that the outside world can have any influence on the direction of events in Burma this can best be done by engaging the country in a way that opens its people to greater international contact. Ostracizing Burma plays into the hands of the ruling junta (it is still a junta no matter how it is packaged for international consumption) whose greatest fear is the effects of new ideas imported from the outside. In the age of the internet, facebook and twitter this will happen eventually in any case but the tactics now being followed by the western members of the international community are just delaying this process.

  • Posted by Neil Miller

    “More than anything since last year, this will be the crucial test of whether Burma is changing at all.”

    I respectfully disagree. What this will test is whether the regime has become savvy enough to leave The Lady alone. The heavy focus on Daw Suu Kyi takes attention away from the real problems facing Myanmar, most obviously, the ethnic conflict that has increased dramatically in recent months. While Suu Kyi is an important symbol for democracy, especially for the international community, inside Myanmar, her impact on politics is limited, especially given that she does not, by any means, have unanimous support amongst ethnic groups.

    If the junta is smart, they will let her travel freely to demonstrate how they’ve “changed” and give ammunition to their trading partners in China and ASEAN for increased legitimacy. At the same time, they will continue abusive policies toward ethnic minorities and others.

    While I understand the strong desire to discuss the treatment of Daw Suu Kyi, please avoid statements that suggest that this is the most important issue facing the people of Myanmar.

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