HONG KONG — Aung San Suu Kyi regained her freedom last weekend, but walked into a “free” life that is still misgoverned by one of the most repressive and stupid regimes in the world, which only days before had thumbed its nose at its own people by conducting fake elections.
Her release offers a moment of opportunity, but it will require great graciousness on her part, an unexpected burst of patriotic imagination by the still ruling generals, and careful but remorseless pressure from the friends and neighbors of Myanmar before the country can be put back on the road to freedom and the kind of prosperity that is the norm in Asia.
Her own graciousness is evident. Suu Kyi emerged with a coolness that would make a cucumber wilt. Closer up, there are deep lines round her eyes — she is after all 65 years old — but being imprisoned or under house arrest for 15 of the last 21 years appears not to have created bitterness. She said, “I don’t feel I have suffered greatly; many others have suffered more,” a reference to Myanmar’s 2,200 political prisoners.
As to being parted from her husband when he died from cancer in England, she responded with icy cool that she had made her choice — to stay in Myanmar — and must take responsibility for her choice. She even made light of her plight when imprisoned, saying that she had had time to think and to read books, whereas now that she’s free, “I don’t seem to have time to breathe, so many things are happening.”
Critics think that she made wrong choices. Was it wise to stay in the country and be silenced for such a long time? But if she had left to campaign from abroad, the generals would have said that she had deserted the country; a voice from abroad would lose its authenticity and its power. Others claim that she should have allowed her party to contest the Nov. 7 elections. The “elections” were both farce and fake.
The generals fixed them. They revised the constitution to give a key role — a 25 percent block of seats in Parliament and control of important ministries — to the military. They excluded Suu Kyi from contesting and banned her party when it failed to register to take part. They set up a proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which key generals, including Prime Minister Thein Sein took off their uniforms to join. They boosted the party with state funds so that it and the National Unity Party, mainly consisting of retired generals, were able to field candidates throughout the country. Then they restricted campaigning and created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation — vote for the generals’ proxy party or else. They refused to allow independent observers to watch the polling or the counting.
The government parties won by an 80 percent margin. That isn’t much of a conjuring trick even by the standards of corrupt elections. Could the generals really be so stupid to believe that an election like this could have any credibility?
When I first visited the country 35 years ago, it was already poor and run-down. I noted that if you keep a lion for a pet, you must expect to pay a big bill for feeding it. The expression “the lion’s share” does not mean 40 or 50 or 60 percent, but more like 95 percent. So it has proved in Myanmar, which in colonial times was the most prosperous country in Southeast Asia, the world’s biggest exporter of rice, rich in timber, minerals and with good reserves of oil and gas.
Today, Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Per capita income is about $1,100, in 210th place in the world league, with a third of its children malnourished. In the laconic words of the CIA Factbook: “Burma suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies and rural poverty. . . . Socio-economic conditions have deteriorated under the regime’s mismanagement, leaving most of the public in poverty, while military leaders and their business cronies exploit the country’s ample natural resources.”
As an example of the gap between fact and fiction, the official exchange rate for the U.S. dollar is 6.5 kyats, but on the more realistic black market you can get 1,000 to 1,300 kyats for your dollar, depending on the tourist season.
The economy has made significant progress in the exploitation of oil and gas, timber and minerals, where the generals have struck such lucrative deals that there has been a clamor of foreigners countries fighting for a share. China has been the biggest beneficiary. Beijing sees Myanmar as essential to its energy security and has been developing oil and gas pipelines. It is also helping to develop hydropower supplies. Thailand also has close economic ties and buys about 30 percent of its gas from Myanmar to light the streets of Bangkok. India has been doing deals to prevent China from turning Myanmar into a client state.
These multibillion dollar deals have benefited the generals but done little for the country. Foreign earnings helped the generals build a sparkling new capital, Naypyidaw, carved out of bamboo forests and gentle hills 320 kilometers north of Rangoon, with eight lane highways (well-lit at night) and monster statues to heroes of the past, instead of the crumbling buildings, frequent power cuts and potholed roads of Rangoon. The generals themselves are out of sight in an isolated guarded zone of Naypyidaw.
Here they can make decisions in splendid isolation free from their people or fear of foreign invasion. It explains why they were little concerned with Cyclone Nargis last year: Even though it killed 130,000 people and badly damaged Rangoon, in inland Naypyidaw the generals felt only a gentle zephyr, yet stirred with concern that the foreign ships rushing with assistance might be an invasion fleet.
Re-enter Suu Kyi. Her immediate message was that she wanted to listen before she would talk, but that she would talk to anyone, even generals. Pertinently, she said she did not wish them ill or see them fall: “I want to see the military rising to dignified heights of professionalism and true patriotism.” The gentle irony was probably lost on the generals.
Don’t expect an inevitable happy ending. The generals probably released Suu Kyi not so they could negotiate but because they had run out of excuses for holding her or because they thought she was a spent force. The electricity of excitement among the crowds who surrounded her shows otherwise.
But she will need help. Western governments and Japan have to devise sweeter carrots and more effective sticks with their sanctions. They also have to encourage India to listen to its democratic heart and soul, not merely its geopolitical head, and persuade Southeast Asian leaders, particularly Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam, that a prosperous Burma where there are fewer refugees is in everyone’s interests, especially theirs.
And then there is China, which increasingly listens to no one but its own business interests and prefers the ease of dealing with dictators. Even China should be aware — since it held up release of the document for six months — that the United Nations has found that North Korea is taking part in “nuclear and ballistic missile-related activities” with Myanmar. Why would the generals want nukes? Even Beijing should beware of the junta’s dangerous appetite.
Kevin Rafferty, formerly in charge of the Financial Times’ coverage of Asia, is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.