Aung San Suu Kyi faces tough political landscape in Burma

Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi could be released Saturday after years under house arrest.
By Tim Johnston
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 7:22 AM

BANGKOK - For much of the past 20 years, a crumbling villa on the shores of Rangoon's Lake Inya has been both home and prison to Aung San Suu Kyi, the focal figure in Burma's long struggle for democracy.

Her latest term of house arrest, imposed last year for allowing an exhausted and possibly mentally ill American tourist to stay the night after he swam across the lake, expired Saturday. As expected, the military government released her -- into a country suffering its latest bout of dashed hopes for democracy.

Suu Kyi, 65, remains by all accounts unbowed. She has spent the past seven years at the home on Rangoon's University Avenue that she inherited from her father, independence hero Aung San, with only housekeepers for company.

"The energy is still there; the commitment is still there. She has all the things that everyone says - she's poised and elegant and a very impressive figure - but she's also well-informed," said Andrew Heyn, the British ambassador to Burma (also known as Myanmar) and one of the few foreigners to have met with Suu Kyi recently. "The message I got when I spoke to her, not only by what she said but by her body language, is that this is a woman who wants to stay involved."

In many ways, Burma's political landscape has changed little since the previous elections in 1990, when Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a landslide victory, only to have it snatched away by the military.

The generals did not make the same mistake last week when they manufactured their own landslide.

Suu Kyi declined to vote, and the NLD has been formally dissolved since refusing to register for the elections. Among Suu Kyi's first challenges will be rebuilding a political platform and healing the divisions that emerged within the opposition over whether to take part in the vote.

Suu Kyi has said she would not accept a conditional release. Nyan Win, her attorney, has said one of her first steps will be to join the NLD's investigation of electoral fraud.

But first she needs to reinvent her political base. The NLD has been hollowed out - most of its leaders are in their 70s or 80s. Younger cadres have been arrested or driven into exile, and new recruits have been scarce.

And although Suu Kyi remains widely respected for her principled stand, some Burmese are starting to question a political strategy that seems to have delivered little.

"My problem with the NLD is that they weren't able to translate massive public support into some kind of political change," said Aung Naing Oo, a political scientist who was a leader of Burma's 1988 student rebellion and now lives in exile in Thailand.

"They could have held out an olive branch to the military - told them that now is the time to work together - but they didn't do that," he said.

"She will have to be more flexible if she wants to remain relevant," said Toe Zaw Latt, a bureau chief with the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exile television station. "They, too, need to adjust to the new political environment."It is unclear whether the rigging of last week's polls will propel Suu Kyi to renewed prominence as one of the few people untainted by association with the generals' electoral ploy, or whether the country's beleaguered democrats will focus their hopes for change on the minuscule parliamentary opposition. They can expect only limited help from outside. Despite the storm of international criticism over the electoral process, not a single country has said it would not deal with the new government.

Many opposition members, including a breakaway faction of the NLD, decided to make an accommodation with the generals over the election in the hope that it might kick-start change. Suu Kyi is in danger of being stranded on the Olympian heights of her principles.

One thing is clear, however: Suu Kyi has in the past shown astonishing tenacity. Supporters say that it would be foolish to write her off too soon.

- Financial Times

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