Leading article: Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom is just the start of a long road

Share
Related Topics

The scenes of rejoicing in Rangoon following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi inevitably cast many people's minds back to the day when another famous pro-democracy leader, Nelson Mandela, was freed just over 20 years ago.

Points of useful comparison, unfortunately, are few, which is why world leaders need to be careful before hailing this welcome event as a sign that Burma's power-hungry junta has experienced a change of heart.

When South Africa's white regime clicked open Mandela's prison door in 1990 after 27 years it did so from a position of weakness, Prime Minister De Klerk having concluded that time had run out for apartheid, and the white minority had to learn to sink or swim in a genuine democracy.

The Burmese military appears to suffer no such self-doubt and is not about to hand over power to Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. On the contrary, the generals seem bent on perpetuating their regime ad infinitum by giving it a new, spurious, veneer of democratic legitimacy. Hence the recent stage-managed elections in which various tame parties, including a breakaway faction of Ms Suu Kyi's own party, took part.

The fact that most outside observers condemned the polls as a farce won't have worried the generals. That the elections split Ms Suu Kyi's democracy movement in two was triumph enough.



The dilemma facing Ms Suu Kyi is that almost any move she makes now can be used against her – either to show that she is a threat to stability, or an irrelevance. The generals will not call another election simply to please the NLD, and might pounce on any suggestion that they dispute the election result as an excuse to lock up its leader again.

As she ponders difficult choices, there is, tragically, not much that her many foreign friends, including David Cameron and Barack Obama, can do. Comparisons with South Africa in the early 1990s are again misleading. The reason why the Nationalists threw in the towel in South Africa was not just because the world disapproved of apartheid or because of the sports boycott. It was because its economy was beginning to buckle under an effective sanctions regime, which most of South Africa's neighbours upheld at some cost to their own prosperity.

Burma's rulers have no such difficulties with their neighbours. The two most important regional powers, China and India, compete for Burma's favour. India may be the world's largest democracy, but is not interested in exporting its democratic values if Burma is anything to go by. Delhi was once an important supporter of Ms Suu Kyi in the early 1990s. But keenness to exploit Burma's oil and gas resources has long since trumped concerns about Burmese civil rights. Significantly, after the military quashed pro-democracy protests in Burma by Buddhist monks in 2007, India murmured platitudes. Thailand, Burma's eastern neighbour, is another enthusiastic trading partner.

The sad fact is that none of Burma's neighbours has a problem with the military regime. If anything, they resent Western lectures on the subject. Ms Suu Kyi, therefore, is in the ironic position of being feted round the world while being virtually friendless where it counts most – in regional capitals.

As her domestic enemies do their best to provoke her, or portray her as a relic of the past, she must hold fast to her principles while showing readiness to adapt to the times. Her suggestion yesterday that she was prepared to talk to the generals was astute – a sign that she recognises the difficult political position she is in. Whether she can continue to balance hard-headed pragmatism with her supporters' idealism remains to be seen. It will be a hard act. We wish her well.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Tory whips were anxiously ringing round the “usual suspects” following Douglas Carswell's defection to Ukip  

Douglas Carswell’s defection reminds us that it's the Tories who have the most to fear from Ukip

Andrew Grice
Daniel Barenboim conducts Prom 46  

Despite Gaza’s war, the show must go on

David Lister
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone