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

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing