The Year in Review: Aung San Suu Kyi

When freedom is no liberty at all

As the deadline for Aung San Suu Kyi's release approached, nobody had a clue whether or not it was going to happen. A rumour that she would be freed a day early proved baseless. That disappointment was followed by new chatter that the junta was trying to put restrictive conditions on her freedom, conditions she was certain to reject.

So when workmen turned up in University Avenue without warning on the afternoon of 13th November and began dismantling the barricades that have prevented access to Suu Kyi's house ever since protesting monks did a peace walk to her gate in September 2007, joy was unbounded. News spreads fast in Burma these days, despite everything the junta can do to stop it – sim cards suddenly became affordable a few months back and now mobile phones are everywhere, central Rangoon is dotted with little internet cafés, the Democratic Voice of Burma, an opposition station based in Norway, beams its satellite TV broadcasts into many Burmese homes – and in no time a large crowd had formed. When the lady herself, an incredibly youthful-looking 65, emerged and clambered up behind the steel gates to greet them, she was met by applause and raucous cheers.

It was more than seven years since she had last come face-to-face with her fellow Burmese. In the interim her party (according to American diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks) had become increasingly smug and sclerotic and a generation of Burmese had grown up for whom the great events of 1988 to 1990, when the democratic forces Suu Kyi led came tantalisingly close to achieving a revolution, were tales whispered by their parents. Yet the crowds that massed to greet her were far larger and more enthusiastic than on her last release back in 2002. Despite everything the regime has done to obliterate her name and achievements, Aung San Suu Kyi still matters. Yet the world-wide euphoria prompted by her release was in a sense misplaced, for her liberation was nothing to do with pressure from activists inside the country or diplomats outside, let alone a sign of the regime giving ground: the generals were merely applying their own rules by the book. In May 2009 the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who had already spent a total of 12 years in detention, was sentenced to three years' additional house arrest for the crime of allowing a cranky American who had swum across Lake Inle to stay in her home for two nights. In a coup de theatre in the courtroom, that sentence was cut in half by the personal order of Than Shwe, the regime's strongman.

One week before her release, Burma had voted in its first general election for 20 years. The timing was no accident: with her release date set in stone by Than Shwe's intervention, the regime was desperate to get the voting process over and done with before she re-appeared.

The election campaign was one of the deadest the world has witnessed since the demise of Communism. Assemblies of more than five people are banned, so there were no campaign meetings. Suu's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was only allowed to participate if it first expelled not only Suu herself but also the hundreds of party members who are in jail for political offences – absurd conditions that the party quite reasonably rejected. Some members who opposed that decision set up breakaway parties, but state funding was so paltry and election costs so high, that they had great difficulty in drawing attention to themselves.

The regime, meanwhile, set about winning by the simple device of turning a huge, regime-sponsored organisation called the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), whose thugs were responsible for an attempt on Suu Kyi's life in 2003, into a political party – replacing the final "A" with a "P". For weeks before polling official media carried long, hectoring editorials on the "duty" of voting. Out in the country, there were reports of people being threatened with prison or even death if they failed to vote for the right party. And as a fail-safe measure, the regime arranged for millions of its dependents to vote ahead of polling day, with the clear understanding that there was only one party they could vote for. By this means the regime cobbled together its own landslide victory, 20 years after its then-proxy party had been wiped out by the NLD. The campaign had all the excitement and spontaneity of a session of calisthenics in a prison yard.

Then one week later, Suu Kyi was released – and overnight the memory of that dismal campaign was erased. As in the early days of the monks' protests in 2007, the forces of law and order melted from view. The size of the crowds seemed to be the Rangoon public's way of saying: this is our candidate; this is the real election.

Since then Suu Kyi has met the UN Secretary-General's chief of staff, an envoy from the US State Department, and a steady stream of other diplomatic and journalistic visitors. But the regime has given not the slightest indication it is willing to talk.

This is not surprising: the whole point of the election was to create a constitutional structure that would erase the significance of the NLD's victory in 1990. For the regime now to offer to talk to that party's figurehead would be to suggest no confidence in the edifice they have built.

Yet despite that – and despite her party having been formally dissolved by the authorities – all is not lost. Seven years of isolation have sharpened Suu Kyi's political instincts. She has so far shown no enthusiasm for resuming the barnstorming tours which alarmed the regime in the past. And she seems to appreciate that, as she has few cards in her hand, she needs to be careful not to throw them away.

Her strongest card regards sanctions. Her vocal support for sanctions back in the 1990s was one of the reasons why she antagonised the regime so badly. In the past couple of years she has let it be known that she is studying the effects sanctions have – with the understanding that, if she finds they have a damaging impact on the living standards of ordinary Burmese, she could oppose them.

The generals can survive quite well with sanctions in place, thanks to the Chinese and the Indians, but they know that if they were relaxed or removed it would be a mighty step towards their international rehabilitation. That is something Suu Kyi could help them with – for the right price, which would have to include the release of Burma's 2,100-plus political prisoners.

The shape of possible talks between the two sides is therefore palpable. Though it remains to be seen whether anyone in the junta will have the gumption to take the initiative.

Peter Popham is the author of The Lady and the Peacock, a new biography of Aung San Suu Kyi to be published by Rider in 2011

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