Looking for Hope in Burma

Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images
Aung San Suu Kyi addressing supporters at the National League for Democracy 
headquarters in Rangoon after her release from house arrest, November 14, 2010

In the ordinarily glacial world of Burmese politics, the last few weeks have been remarkably active. On November 7 the generals who run the country held the first parliamentary elections in twenty years, and only the second in half a century; a few days later, on November 13, they released the country’s preeminent opposition figure, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, from seven and a half years of house arrest.

The elections themselves brought little surprise or excitement, and apparently much lower turnout in this country of more than 50 million people than the generals would have liked. They were also quickly labeled unfree and unfair by most Western governments, with the British ambassador to the country telling the BBC on the day of the vote, “Everything about this electoral process, I’m afraid, goes toward more of the same.” The party backed by the military won three quarters of the seats in Parliament.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s release has initially been a somewhat subdued affair, and by all indications deliberately so. Smiling, dressed in pink, and placing a flower in her hair as she leaned over the high, pronged gates of her lakeside villa on University Avenue in Rangoon, she greeted a crowd of several thousand enthusiastic supporters with words that made clear that she would remain firmly engaged in national politics, and yet nonetheless seemed very carefully measured. “There is a time to be quiet and a time to talk. People must work in unison. Only then can we achieve our goal,” she told the crowd, before returning inside to consult with senior members of her National League for Democracy party, which chose to disband in May rather than declare void its 1990 electoral victory.

One widespread interpretation of recent events in the country is that the generals are gambling that after her long detention, Aung San Suu Kyi is a largely spent force, particularly among many in the country’s educated, middle, and professional classes. In dozens of interviews during a recent month I spent there, many such people criticized Suu Kyi for what they see as her past unwillingness to lower tensions with the military and seek compromise.1

I’ve told her to call for a lifting of the [international] sanctions, which the generals actually like,” said one prominent intellectual who has maintained good relations with her.

I want to tell her to impose a moratorium on politics for a while and concentrate on bringing a bowl of rice to the Burmese people, enough to eat, a bit of cooking oil. Then we can ask for a release of the political prisoners, and keep working on progress in the humanitarian situation and with poverty.

Others express dissatisfaction at the international attention focused on Suu Kyi. “They reduce our story to the lady and the …

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    Photographs taken during this trip can be seen at www.howardwfrench.net .