Since being freed from two decades of house arrest two weeks ago, Burma’s dissident number one, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been busily touring Yangon and interviewing with foreign media, diplomats, local citizens, and political leaders. She has long called for “genuine dialogue” with Burma’s current junta as well as “national reconciliation” with all ethnic armies and political prisoners. And yet, the country’s military rulers have spurned and repressed her democracy movement, a struggle against all odds.
Now there are signs that her practical approach is changing. She has supported US and international sanctions in the past, but now she says she is willing to reconsider whether their targeted effects are not working and whether they might negatively affect Burma’s civilians and poor, studying reports from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
As for reconciliation, a vague and oft-heard buzzword in Burma, she seems to realize the need to adopt a more pragmatic political stance. “She needs to translate what she says into something realistic,” said Ko Aung Naing Oo, a Bangkok-based political consultant. “Reconciliation is an overused word in Burma and no one has brought it down to a realistic, workable level.”
She has reached out to some of the more open-minded factions in the junta, reiterating that she doesn’t want to exclude the current ruling officers from the reconciliation process: “Dialogue must be a win-win situation for both parties. No one should be excluded from politics, since it is related to everyone,” Daw Suu Kyi told The Irrawaddy in an interview November 20. As for those in the military who quietly support her: “If they want change, they have to make it happen. As I said earlier, I don’t believe in just imagining how things might be better. If we expect something, we must strive for it.”
But her policies still remain vague, as her newfound freedoms have yet to be tested. She has spoken openly of a “peaceful revolution,” and she has met with her disbanded political party, the National League for Democracy, which chose to boycott the recent elections this month. “There are always some who participate in politics inside Parliament, and others who are involved in politics outside Parliament. We will be in the latter category,” Daw Suu Kyi explained. “Since we have some experience with how they [the Union Solidarity & Development Party (USDP), Burma’s ruling party] engage in political activities, we will use various means to carry out our political activities outside the Parliament.”
Is there a new political landscape in Burma? Many human rights activists will decry that theory, pointing to the rigged elections, the more than 2,100 political prisoners remaining behind bars, and the gross violations of villagers’ rights and basic safety perpetrated by the Burmese military. However, the Lady, as Daw Suu Kyi is referred to, has so far enjoyed considerable freedom of expression, and her abilities to mobilize opposition remain a defining factor in the struggle for a new identity politics in Burma. For foreign observers and democratic forces in and around Burma, cautious optimism and informed engagement remain in order.
¹ “Suu Kyi Pledges No Pullback,” in The Wall Street Journal, 20 November, 2010.
² “If We Want Change, We Have to Make It Happen,” in The Irrawaddy, 20 November, 2010; emphasis added.