Thursday, 19 June 2008

Suu Kyi celebrates birthday with no hope of being freed soon

Larry Jagan

18 June 2008 - Millions of people throughout the world will mark the birthday of Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on June 19. The co-ordinated campaign around the world, which will take place in almost every major city in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America, is trying to highlight the plight of one of the world's best known freedom fighters, languishing under house arrest in her lakeside residence in Rangoon.

But Burma's military rulers are likely to remain totally unmoved by the millions of Burmese and international protesters demanding her immediate release. "They can jump up and down and make as much noise as they like, General Than Shwe couldn't careless," according to a senior government official. As a matter of principle, the ruling junta will not be pressured into being conciliatory.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the last 19 years in detention. She is currently spending her third term under house arrest. The regime locked her up again after a brutal attack on her and her entourage as they were travelling in the north of the country in May 2003. She has been in detention ever since, and in the last four years she has been in virtual solitary confinement, seeing her doctor irregularly and meeting the UN envoy, Ibrahim Gambari five times in the last two years.

For the Burmese people, trampled for more than forty years by a repressive military regime, Aung San Suu Kyi represents their aspirations, and above all their desire for freedom and democracy. She was placed under house arrest the first time ten months before her party, the National League for Democracy overwhelmingly won the national elections – but was never allowed to form a government.

The irony is that Aung San Suu Kyi herself would probably disapprove of the world making a fuss over her birthday. She has continuously shunned personal attention. And even when her husband and sons accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, her acceptance speech smuggled out of the country at the time said it was not for her alone, but for all Burmese people in their struggle for democracy.

There has always been a self-effacing touch to Aung San Suu Kyi. Since her return to Rangoon to look after her ill mother in 1987, she has always put her personal concerns aside for the sake of the Burmese people.

"I draw inspiration from the courage and sacrifice of the ordinary Burmese people," she often said to me in interviews on the phone during the few years she was freed from house arrest for the first time in 10 July 1995, after six years under house arrest.

But Burma's military leader, senior General Than Shwe cannot even tolerate hearing her name. "The mere mention of her name sends the old man into a silent rage," according to a senior military source close to the top General.

Asia's foreign ministers were warned by their Burmese counterpart at the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh in 2002 to avoid mentioning her name in his presence. The former intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt frequently warned the UN envoy Razali Ismail to minimise the mention of Aung San Suu Kyi's name in front of the top general.

Indonesia's foreign minister Dr Hasan Wirajuda confided to UN officials that there was a marked change in Than Shwe's demeanour when he mentioned Aung San Suu Kyi. "His eyes glazed over and his facial muscles tensed; clearly our discussion had come to an end," he reportedly said.

This remains one of the key obstacles to resolving Burma's political deadlock. Burma's top generals are not interested in a concrete dialogue with the pro-democracy leader. "We've been trying to get them to the negotiating table for 14 years but they have never been keen on the idea," she told me the last time we met in March 2003.

Aung San Suu Kyi on the other hand has repeatedly offered to discuss the country's political future with the Generals. Everything is negotiable if they start meaningful talks, she told me weeks before she was detained for the third time more than two years ago following an attack on her and her entourage by pro-government thugs in what is now called Black Friday.

"We are in opposition to each other at the moment but we should work together for the sake of the country. We certainly bare no grudges against them. We are not out for vengeance. We want to reach the kind of settlement which will be beneficial to everybody, including the members of the military," Aung San Suu Kyi said to me in one of her last interviews before her fateful trip in 2003.

During Aung San Suu Kyi's second long period of house arrest, after she was detained trying to travel out of Rangoon in late 2000, the regime started tentative contact with the pro-democracy leader. The secret talks were largely brokered by the then UN special envoy for Burma Razali Ismail. Although this contact was never really substantive, it raised hopes inside Burma and abroad that political reform may be the agenda.

A process of national reconciliation was started, ostensibly involving senior representatives of the military regime, pro-democracy leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the ethnic rebel groups, many of whom have been fighting for some form of autonomy for more than five decades.

At the time there were high hopes, although many leading Burmese dissidents abroad and diplomats in Rangoon remained highly sceptical, believing the Burmese generals had no intentions of negotiating and were only concerned about hanging on to power at any cost.

In 2001 the Singaporean Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong told me privately that the generals were incorrigible and would never give up power voluntarily. Most Asian leaders probably did not disagree with the eminent Singaporean politician at the time – or even now -- but all of them preferred to coax Burma's top military leaders to change, rather than pressure them.

Even East Timor's president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta has suggested that pressuring the Generals in Rangoon was counter-productive. "Threats and deadlines have had no affect on the junta except hardening their position and forcing them to retreat into isolation," he told me several years ago.

But Aung San Suu has persisted trying to convince the regime that she at least was prepared to negotiate and that meant making concessions. "What we've always said is that dialogue is not a competition," she told me as we chatted in Rangoon over two years ago.

"We don't want a dialogue in order to find out who is the better person, or which is the smarter organisation. We have always said that the only winner, if we settle down to negotiations, the only winner, will be the country," she said.

Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly made conciliatory gestures towards the regime. As the daughter of the independence hero and founder of modern Burma, General Aung San, she understands the military mentality and is prepared to work with them.

"We have genuine goodwill towards the Burmese military. I personally look upon it with a certain amount of affection because of my father and I want it to have an honourable position in the country," she told me as we sat together talking at the NLD headquarters, weeks before the regime showed its true colours.

During yet another "honey-moon" period, after the new Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt announced the seven-stage road map to democracy and the regime started plans to reconvene the National Convention to draft a new constitution, there was a glimmer of hope that Burma's military leaders may at long last include Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in the process.

In 2004, at the suggestion of the Chinese, Aung San Suu Kyi even wrote to Than Shwe suggesting that they put the past behind them and move forward in a new era of cooperation. It fell on deaf ears.

Burma's top general is convinced that by keeping Aung San Suu Kyi in detention he can marginalise her and reduce her influence in the country. It is a vain hope as the protests and parties across the world will testify to. Aung San Suu Kyi is not only a massive icon in Burma, but throughout the globe.

Shortly after Kofi Annan took over as the UN secretary general he had to find some-one to lead the UN Commission on Human Rights. "I have a great idea, he told a close mutual friend, we'll make Aung San Suu Kyi the head of the human rights commission." Whether he really meant it or not we may never know.

But of course Aung San Suu Kyi who at the time had just been released from house arrest for the first time would never have taken the post as her over-riding commitment is to the cause of democracy in Burma.

At this point of time, with Burma having experienced its worst natural disaster in living memory, the detained opposition leader's thoughts will definitely be with those victims who have lost everything in the devastating cyclone that hit Burma more than six weeks ago. Their suffering has been made all the worse by the military's slow response to the disaster and their attempt to completely control the current relief efforts and any reconstruction plan in the future.

The contrast between the diminutive democracy hero and the generals in charge of Burma has never been so stark. Following what would be Aung San Syy Kyi's lead if she was free or able to talk, the NLD has offered to put aside their differences with the regime in the interests of working together to provide relief to more than three million victims, many of whom are still waiting to receive fresh water and food, and after that help with the rehabilitation and reconstruction phase.

Instead, Than Shwe and his fellow generals remain steadfast in believing they can do it alone. The horrible irony of course is that their secretive approach to ruling the country in part resulted in the damage being greater than it might have been, Warnings were not broadcast to the Delta or Rangoon before the cyclone hit – though the regime knew for days that the storm was brewing.

On the eve of the cyclone hitting Burma, government officials were ordered not say anything publicly – instructions from Than Shwe himself, according to government sources. Instead one civil servant, U Tun Lwin the director general of the meteorology department, when he was told directly by a government minister not to issue a public warning because it would cause people to panic, sent a warning SMS to as many of his friends in Rangoon as possible after midnight.

Air force fighters and private passenger planes, from Bagan Air – believed to be a joint venture between Than Shwe's family and the Burmese business tycoon Tay Ze -- and Air Mandalay were moved the evening before the cyclone from Rangoon airport to Mandalay for safety.

"This is symptomatic of the military leaders' total disregard for the safety of ordinary citizens and placing the protection of the military's interest above all else," a Burmese government official told Mizzima on condition anonymity.

For Burma's top general, Than Shwe, there is no need to compromise. This is symptomatic of the absurd irrationality that prevails amongst the military rulers. When any other national leader would be looking to promote national reconciliation and reconsolidation – the junta remains interested only in their own survival and holding onto political power, no matter how petty this is, when Burma is facing such a mammoth catastrophe.

The last time I met Aung Sann Suu Kyi – the last foreign journalist to talk to her before the ill-fated trip up-country -- we talked about the sort of Burma that could emerge if there was real political change and democracy. "You'll be exhausted because of so many things going on, because it's a dynamic country, she mused.

"At the same time I would very much like Burma to retain some of its traditional charm which has something to do with the fact that we are not as frantic as other countries. In some ways perhaps the fact that we are developing later than other countries can become an asset in a sense, that we learn from the mistakes of other countries and we learn how to get the best out of development while avoiding some of the worst aspects," she said.

Now more than ever the Burmese military regime should take heed of her continual offers to work together and solve Burma's problems. In the midst of perhaps the worse horror to have befallen Burma, it is time for Than Shwe to listen. Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly made conciliatory gestures towards the regime. As the daughter of the independence hero and founder of modern Burma, General Aung San, she understands the military mentality and is prepared to work with them.

But Than Shwe believes he does not need her and that unseen she will fade away. Nothing could be further from the truth. Aung San Suu Kyi is undeterred by the years of incarceration. When I met her on the day she was released last time – 6th May 2002, she confided that the isolation have given her plenty of time to read, reflect and meditate.

During the last five years of isolation in her Rangoon residence, I am certain she continues to draw inspiration from her father and the sacrifices of the Burmese people. "I always have been strengthened and inspired by my father. Even now, sometimes when I go over his old speeches, they are as relevant now as they were then -- he was indeed a man of vision," she confided to me as I left the NLD headquarters.

"He was a truly inspirational. I am also proud of the fact that he gained nothing. He gave but he didn't take anything from the nation. He gave the country a lot and took nothing from it. I am very proud of that and that inspires me," she said. It is a pity that the current leaders of the army, which General Aung San founded, cannot find the same inspiration, at a time when the country needs it most.

As she sits alone in her Rangoon residence now, I am certain she is continuing to draw inspiration from her father and the sacrifices of the Burmese people. She would be keen to help and is probably fretting that she cannot. It is the intransigence of the generals that is now not only delaying the return of democracy to Burma, but perhaps putting millions of lives at risk.

Now Burma's top general should at least talk directly to Aung San Suu Kyi and see how she could help the reconstruction effort. They would of course need to put genuine political dialogue with the NLD on the table in the future. But the opposition leaders' commitment to improving the lives of the Burmese people would no doubt mean she was prepared to compromise in the interests of getting the whole international aid effort into full swing.

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