News / Asia

Burma's Freed Democracy Leader Seeking Role in Politics

Activists from the Free Burma Coalition holding masks depicting Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi hold a rally in front of the Burmese embassy in Manila, 17 Nov 2010
Activists from the Free Burma Coalition holding masks depicting Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi hold a rally in front of the Burmese embassy in Manila, 17 Nov 2010

Burma's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is seeking a return to politics just days after her release from house arrest.  But regional political analysts say the Nobel Prize winner's ability to bring change may be limited, in part because she could be imprisoned again if she pushes the military government too hard.

Free less than a week, Aung San Suu Kyi is mounting a legal challenge to restore her National League for Democracy.

The NLD was disbanded as a political party for refusing to follow strict rules and register in Burma's controversial election.  It now operates as a social charity and is not supposed to be involved in activities deemed political.

But Aung San Suu Ky has made clear she plans to be politically active after being released from seven years in detention.

The 65-year-old democracy icon says she wants to meet with pro-democracy groups that contested the elections, but now complain of vote fraud and intimidation.

But she also has offered to hold reconciliation talks with the government that took away her freedom.

In an interview with VOA's Burmese Service, the Nobel Peace Prize winner acknowledged that dialogue with the military government would not come easy.

"I think the most important thing is the will to find a solution.  If both sides are really willing to find a solution we will find one," she said. "We can't do it if just one side wants a solution and the other is not keen on it.  So, what we have to do is try to persuade the military regime that national reconciliation is in everybody's interest, including theirs."

Limits to popularity

Thousands of people have flocked to see Aung San Suu Kyi, making clear that she remains tremendously popular.

William Case is director of the Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong.  He says it is not clear how well she can translate popularity into effective change.

"She can inspire some hope, she can keep popular longing, sentiments, for democratic change alive.  But, in terms of actually bringing out any meaningful democratization of politics, that is probably quite limited," he said.

As an incentive for dialogue, she is considering supporting an end to economic sanctions.

For years she has urged Western governments to restrict trade to punish the government for rights abuses.

Critics maintain sanctions hurt ordinary people and allow countries less concerned about rights, such as China, to dominate investment and trade.

Carl Thayer is a professor specializing in Southeast Asia at the Australian Defense Force Academy. He says the offer could give Aung San Suu Kyi a chance to meet with government officials but her influence on Burma's politics is limited.

"If she helps removing sanctions - that's a positive thing.  But, once they're removed, she's not needed in that respect.  She can't play a role in the executive legislature so she can be bypassed," said Thayer. "If she does attempt to mobilize people, in what form would that take - the next elections or mass demonstrations or petitions?  What action could they do to a military-dominated legislature peacefully?"

Hope for gradual change

Aung San Suu Kyi was released a week after Burma held an election that was widely condemned as unfair and designed to keep the military in power.

The government says the election was part of a plan to return to civilian rule, but with the military retaining a significant role to prevent ethnic militias from splitting the country.

A military-backed party claims it won the election by a landslide.

Some Burma analysts say, flawed as it was, the election may offer the best hope for gradual change.

But Thayer says time is running out for Aung San Suu Kyi to get involved.

"And, hopefully she has enough intelligence to learn how to navigate at the moment.  And it has to be gradualism. It's got to be slow," he said. "And, probably joining with regional countries and movements to try to take what appears to be a slight opening and trying to push it wider."

Push to end abuses

Rights groups say Burma has one of the world's most oppressive governments.  There are over 2,000 political prisoners in its jails and the military is accused of systematic forced labor, torture, rape, and murder.

Aung San Suu Kyi says she will continue to push for an end to abuses.

But Case in Hong Hong says if she is too vocally critical of the government she can be easily silenced.

"And, if it does appear that she's growing more effective and begins to present any kind of challenge to that country's leadership, then, as everyone is saying, she can simply be returned to house arrest," he said.

Aung San Suu Kyi says the opposition has no intention of clashing with the government and that the NLD hopes the military understands that clashing is not the solution to Burma's problems.

The NLD won Burma's previous election in 1990 but the military ignored the result and confined Aung San Suu Kyi in her house for most of the past two decades.

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