HONG KONG — On May 7, Vietnam inadvertently hindered 50 million Myanmarese from learning that “at last Aung Sang Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest.” The Myanmar government’s authoritarian habits prevailed at the very moment when hopes of future democracy were reborn.
All over the world, Suu Kyi’s “release” was headlined, but not in her own country. There, in the main Burmese- and English-language press, the top headlines were reserved for visiting Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong, as he met the country’s ruling generals.
At long last, Suu Kyi, the duly elected leader of Myanmar, was no longer under house arrest. She was free to travel throughout her country and was free to start reorganizing her party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, which won the 1990 election with 82 percent of the seats.
But the Myanmar people are not free to read, see or hear what Suu Kyi is doing, where she is going or what she is saying. Of course, after 40 years of military dictatorship, the people of Myanmar have become adept at learning of developments by word of mouth. Still, after 18 months of “confidence-building” between jailed and jailers, between Suu Kyi and the military, a very basic way for establishing confidence in the good faith of the junta was not achieved. Suu Kyi’s release was not reported by the state-run Myanmar media. Official junta statements did not even mention her by name.
Perhaps everyone, including Suu Kyi, forgot to mention the importance of freedom of information in Myanmar’s future. Perhaps they did mention it and the military rejected it. Either way, it was not a good sign.
Sad to say, there are others. The number of prisoners released out of the thousands that have been detained or imprisoned by the junta has been debated. The military said 600 have been let go, the NLD said around 200 and Suu Kyi said precise figures are difficult to calculate.
Consider the case of 74-year-old Myanmar academic Salai Tun Than, who on March 25 was sentenced to seven years imprisonment under Myanmar’s Article 5(J) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act. What was his crime? Last Nov. 29 he peacefully distributed copies of a petition calling for elections within a year, and for power to be transferred to the winners of that election.
Article 5(J) states that any person “who infringes on the integrity, health, conduct and respect of State military organizations” or who “spreads false news about the government” or who “disrupts the morality or the behavior of a group of people” shall be sentenced to up to 7 years in prison.
By March 25, when Salai was sentenced, the so-called confidence-building period between the military regime and Suu Kyi was far advanced. Her release was in sight. Yet, at that very time, an old man of 74 received the maximum sentence for a peaceful protest.
As the Washington director of Human Rights Watch Asia, Mike Jendrzejczyk, then commented: “The Burmese government is making it clear that it will crush any and all dissent. The harshness of the sentence suggests that, political dialogue notwithstanding, the Rangoon regime is fundamentally unchanged.”
It is faintly possible that Salai has now been released, although one doubts it. Salai is not a detainee in the eyes of the regime — he is a duly convicted criminal. As a regime spokesman, Col. Hla Min has said, “we shall continue to release those who will cause no harm to the community, nor threaten the existing peace, stability and unity of the nation.” In other words, the junta will continue to imprison those who offend the catch-all provisions of Article 5(J). Free elections would undoubtedly “infringe” on the “health” of the Myanmar military.
This incident has a further devastating implication. Salai was imprisoned on March 25 for the seditious act of asking for an election in one year’s time. That implies that Suu Kyi and U.N. special envoy Razali Ismail either have not been asking the junta to hold fresh elections soon or else that they did ask, and the military emphatically rejected it. Either way, it, too, is a very bad sign. The parlous state of Myanmar’s economy and society simply cannot wait for some indefinite half-baked political reform that is way over the political horizon.
So while there was too much euphoria voiced overseas as Suu Kyi was released from another 19 months of house arrest, there was, in truth, little to be euphoric about.
To the contrary, more sad scenes in Myanmar’s unending postcolonial tragedy seem the prospect, as all three main players in the drama appear to be compromising themselves.
Suu Kyi declined to criticize the regime that had arbitrarily imprisoned her. She no longer insists that she is the duly elected leader of the nation. She indicates she will not be touring the nation anytime soon. She keeps details of her protracted negotiations with the military junta to herself. Her confidence in the junta’s intentions may have increased, but she cannot say why. So Suu Kyi risks incurring a growing pervasive suspicion, among long-suffering followers, that she may have given in too much to the regime.
The grim situation in Myanmar cries aloud for sustained pressure from the outside world. This makes the role of the U.N. special envoy particularly crucial since he will have to convey the outside world’s views to the recalcitrant generals. Yet the International Herald Tribune’s Thomas Crampton has exclusively revealed that Razali is chairman and part owner of a Malaysian firm that signed a contract two weeks ago to supply passports to the Myanmar government.
Razali naively claims that there is no conflict of interest since he didn’t negotiate the deal himself. It is extremely doubtful that some of the Myanmar generals see it this way. Razali should protect the good work he has done so far by quickly resigning, so that a truly impartial person can take his place.
But the military junta has also painted itself into a corner. As it played — or rather misplayed — its trump card of Suu Kyi’s release, the regime again displayed the political incompetence that has been its hallmark.
The junta heralded the start of “a new page” but did not make an unambiguous promise of political reform. The best it could do was, “We shall recommit ourselves to allowing all of our citizens to participate freely in the life of our political process, whilst giving priority to national unity, peace and stability of the country.”
This gives the Myanmar people both hope for an advance and fear of a retreat. The priority of “unity, peace, and stability” was the excuse used 40 years ago — when the military first took over power in Myanmar.
Unlike the apartheid regime in South Africa when it released Nelson Mandela, Myanmar’s generals have not admitted to any past mistakes. Such a confession would have done more for confidence-building than the news that there have been secret talks with Suu Kyi for 18 months.
But then the apartheid regime knew they needed Mandela to save a sinking ship. The Myanmar military leadership refuses to admit that their ship is badly holed.
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