The release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from the house arrest to which she has been subject since 2003 is rightfully celebrated as a small step toward a freer and more open society in Burma.
The Southeast Asian country was renamed Myanmar by the military junta that has ruled the country ruthlessly since 1990, up to a recent election that only seems to cement their power. It is quite possible the generals ordered Suu Kyi’s release because they feel more secure in the wake of the elections and don’t think she will be a major threat to their power. It is also quite possible they have miscalculated and created a more effective danger to their power than they hoped.
The earliest signs suggest Suu Kyi, 1991 Nobel Peace laureate and daughter of Burma’s founding hero, U Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947 when she was 2, retains much of her popularity and eloquence. But she may have to formulate her plans carefully to continue effectively her long struggle for democratic reforms and more freedom in a country that has known little of either.
Suu Kyi won the last reasonably open election in Burma in 1990 as head of the National League for Democracy, but the generals annulled the result and placed her under house arrest, released her for a few years, then reimposed house arrest in 2003.
Before the recent election many military leaders resigned and ran for office as nominal civilians but their loyalties didn’t change. Suu Kyi was barred from running and her party boycotted the elections. But some democracy supporters broke away and participated in the election as at least a small way of moving toward a freer, more democratic society. So she will have to mend fences with some of her supporters as she assesses her situation in a more complex political environment.
All concerned say she was released without conditions, and it seems clear that by holding a rally the day after her release she defied the government, which had hoped she would stay clear of politics for a while. But her speech avoided a confrontational tone, even welcoming the idea of face-to-face discussions with the junta’s leaders.
The most important thing western countries can do now would be to lift the economic sanctions many foolishly imposed when Suu Kyi was last arrested in 2003. The sanctions actually served the generals, who want to keep Burma/Myanmar isolated from the outside world (except for China). As economic sanctions almost always do, they hurt the Burmese people more than their autocratic rulers.
It is unfortunate this will be seen as a reward to the military rulers rather than an admission that the sanctions were ill-considered in the first place, but it should be done anyway. Cross-border economic activity tends to foster independence and usher in liberating influences in repressive countries — not on a predictable timetable, perhaps, but eventually.