July 14, 2011
Last week, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the disbanded National League for Democracy, traveled to Bagan amidst widespread speculation of military violence. Suu Kyi’s NLD won the previous 1990 elections, but the ruling military junta prevented a transfer of power. In 2010, the generals outlawed the political party when it chose to boycott the unfair elections in November. The last time Suu Kyi traveled outside of Yangon, where she has been kept under house arrest for nearly 15 of the last 21 years, was in 2003. During that trip, thugs threatened her life and killed a number of her colleagues, probably at the behest of the generals.
During this trip, Suu Kyi is not allowed to engage in political behavior, but large crowds greeted her arrival. Her widespread popularity remains strong, though her political party now finds itself on the sidelines of the political center in the capital Naypyidaw. While she continues to travel and to speak with foreign diplomats and human rights activists, it remains unclear whether she will be able to remain pertinent to the process of national reconciliation she has long advocated for in Burma. If Burma’s young parliamentary government can prove itself an appealing forum for political debate, she may be forced to retire from her lead role in Burma’s democracy movement.
The Lady obviously maintains widespread popularity amongst Burma’s people and thus the government remains wary of her influence, but does she still offer a pragmatic hope for national reconciliation in Burma? Her longtime championing of the democracy cause has come across a roadblock with the disbanding of her party, but her efforts to promote internal stability and peace remain just as relevant today as various ethnic groups currently engaged in warfare with Burma’s tatmadaw step up their resistance efforts against incursions into their territories. She still has a leadership role outside of Burma’s new parliamentary government and is able to communicate with international diplomats like Senator John McCain, who visited Burma last month and urged reforms in the capital, holding separate meetings with Suu Kyi and various opposition groups. As China urges Burma’s military to show caution in protecting its strategic investments in Northern Burma, Suu Kyi should seize on joint security interests between China, Burma, and the US, in an effort to promote human rights and stability inside her country.