Burma: Don't celebrate yet

Posted by Alexander Hay

Aung Suu Kyi might ponder whether her freedom has come at too high a cost.


While it's good news that the Burmese military junta has finally released its number one dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, after 20 years of house arrest, let's consider - for a moment - what has actually happened here.

First, the Burmese military has scored a PR coup. By releasing their main opponent, they can now make a compelling case for the lifting of sanctions. More to the point, they can claim they are now more open and democratic, pointing to their not-entirely-transparent recent elections as further proof. 

Secondly, very little will change in Burma. While the return of 15000 refugees who fled Burma after the elections is widely reported, the junta's human rights record remains hideous. The same guns are still pointed at the same people and the Thai refugee camps are still full of Burma's Karen and Shan minority people. Intimidation as a tool of control remains rife.

More ominously, the new Burmese flag has replaced its many stars, each representing one of Burma's many ethnic groups, with a single white star, which to some signifies an official Burmese policy of racial supremacy. Given its appalling treatment of its minorities, these critics may have a point.

Elsewhere the picture remains bleak too. Over 2000 dissidents and prisoners of conscience remain behind bars. These do not, of course, attract as much media attention as Aung San Suu Kyi, not even the popular Burmese comedian Zarganar, who was imprisoned in 2008 for speaking out against the junta's poor handling of the Irrawaddy delta disaster. A general amnesty would be a far more radical step for the junta. Instead, it seems, they have picked the path of least resistance. 

And Burma itself remains a stricken country. An age expectancy of 62 for men and 69 for women is comparable to the rest of the developing world. But disease is rife, its infant mortality rate is worse than North Korea and the Gaza Strip, and its GDP is lower than many African countries and Haiti. 

Adult literacy is reasonably high (almost 94% for men, and 86% for women) but the country remains stubbournly rural, with only a third of the population living in towns and cities and only around 110,000 internet users in a population of over 53 million people.

Any reforms in Burma would, then, have to deal with the many issues facing this undeveloped country. Any democratic settlement would have to resolve these many issues, and it will take years to remedy them.

Finally, there is Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Any power she may have is fragile and conditional. The crushing of the 2007 protests shows that 'people power' alone will not unseat the junta. If she were to overplay her hand then a return to house arrest would be inevitable. Her position is weak indeed. The Burmese government may well assume it has nothing to lose in locking her up again if its PR stunt backfires.

More, her conciliatory and pacifist approach to the junta again makes her weak. An icon she may be, but the Burmese government remains both in power and heavily armed. She risks giving too much away in exchange for too little, and in the end may simply be co-opted and neutered by the junta, much as Morgan Tsvangirai has been in Zimbabwe

Comparisons with other figures does not bode well either. Ghandi had the good fortune to be dealing with a reluctant British colonial power, whereas Nelson Mandela knew he was the best alternative to South Africa descending into chaos. 

By contrast, Aung Suu Kyi's best chance will be if the Burmese junta collapses in the fashion of the former Eastern Bloc, and yet it remains stubbornly in power. A lifting of sanctions may only strengthen its hand: a booming economy has not made Burma's ally, China, any more democratic after all.

It would be wrong, of course, to dismiss this major event out of hand. But if Aung Suu Kyi has any sense, she might well start by managing expectations and noting the scope of the task before her.

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Alexander Hay

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