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Online Commentary

Time to Break the Deadlock
By Aung Naing Oo

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel Laureate, will spend her 60th birthday this Sunday, June 19, in isolation. By this time next week, she will have spent more than two years under house arrest, her third term of detention since her first arrest in 1989. The Burmese military regime has gained little from keeping her in detention. It must therefore reconsider its strategies in dealing with the opposition icon.

The junta leaders clearly do not consider her a key partner in any political transition. For this reason, she has been the junta’s main obstacle in its efforts to rule Burma without opposition—whether she is free or under detention. Indeed, the junta knew as early as 1988 that she would pose a major problem for them. Even though they did all they could do to stop Suu Kyi, her fiery speeches and charms won the hearts of the Burmese. Her election campaigns in 1989 with her party, the National League for Democracy, attracted thousands of Burmese wherever she went.  Then despite being under house arrest, she overwhelmingly won the general election in 1990. But the junta broke their promise to transfer power, ignored the election and continued to detain her.

The junta finally released her in July 1995 once they were confident they were in control of the situation. But no sooner was she released from house arrest than she renewed her political activities. The generals continued to ignore her call for dialogue, and instead placed numerous restrictions on her. She defied the ban to travel outside the capital Rangoon, which embarrassed the junta as their attempt to prevent her outings aroused international attention and condemnation.

After a trip to the Irrawaddy delta in 1999 she was forced back to Rangoon and placed under house arrest for the second time.  She was released again in May 2002, only to be detained once again exactly a year later in May 2003 after a mob attacked her and her entourage at Depayin, central Burma.   

The regime’s indecisiveness over whether to keep Suu Kyi free or under house arrest reflects its obvious lack of strategy on how to deal with her. Switching back and forth between these two positions, the generals treat her as a despised pariah, trying to sideline and belittle her. But this has not succeeded, as her popularity remains intact despite languishing under detention.

It is evident the regime has not achieved its goals, and as Suu Kyi’s birthday nears the calls worldwide for her release mount. Even Rangoon’s assumption of Asean’s rotating chairmanship is being jeopardized because she has not been freed. Calls for her release promise only to increase as the time draws nearer.

Suu Kyi is the rallying cry for anti-military feelings in Burma, and indeed for world democracy and peace. Since she is a political liability for the regime, it must try to turn her into an asset rather than an obstacle. To do this the regime must bring her into the open political arena in order to reach a compromise. This is the only way to end the political crisis in Burma, without which the political stand-off will continue. 

One way to compromise with her would be to make her a key member of the National Defense and Security Council as proposed in the draft constitution. The junta should also consider allowing some ethnic minority representatives to sit on the council in the name of national reconciliation. Or the junta could consider appointing her as the head of the newly-created National Reconciliation Commission to oversee all reconciliation efforts.

On May 1, the regime published an article urging the NLD and all other national organizations to respond objectively to the draft constitution. The junta, however, has yet to talk with Suu Kyi. If it is serious about negotiations, it must go beyond blaming her and the NLD. There is no better time for dialogue than now, while she is under detention.

In a final analysis however, the junta’s compromise alone will not solve Burma’s problems. There must be compromise on both sides, so Suu Kyi must accede to some of the junta’s demands too. In this way, everyone will gain.

(June 17, 2005)

Aung Naing Oo is the author of the Burmese language book “Compromising with the Burmese generals.  The views express here are solely the opinion of the author. (Kaowao's Editor)


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