Burma’s military rulers are expected to release democracy-fighter Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest Nov. 13. For Burma watchers like myself, it will be interesting to see if this daughter of modern Burma’s founder still retains the same feistiness that I saw in her 21 years ago.
Back then, it was her critical comments about the military dictatorship that helped put her out of public sight. Might she now make the same mistake?
Ms. Suu Kyi has doubtless mellowed and become wiser during her long, lonely days stuck in her Rangoon residence. In 1988, when she first began to fight for democracy after a popular revolt, she was not a natural politician. And she was often curt with foreign journalists, not realizing how much they can shine a spotlight on small countries struggling for freedom.
Yet Burma (or Myanmar), a former British colony stuck under the military boot since 1962, needed her as both a symbol and a leader. She almost succeeded in ending military rule in 1990 when her political party handily won an election the military was forced to hold. But the junta ignore the results and simply put her away.
I spoke to her during that brief election campaign while her caravan traveled outside Mandalay. She drew large crowds that appeared eager for democracy and an end to Burma’s self-imposed isolation.
“My father didn’t build up the Burmese Army in order to oppress the people,” Suu Kyi told me. “He made many speeches where he specifically said, ‘Don’t start oppressing the people just because you have weapons. You are to serve the country. You are for the country, the country is not for you.”
Her specific mistake was to claim that she, not the military, carried the mantle of legitimacy from her father, Aung San, the national hero who led Burma to independence in an armed struggle before being killed in 1947. In many Asian nations, public legitimacy is often more important than wining an election.
Having been raised largely outside the country and married to a British man, Suu Kki was probably not sensitive enough to the loss of face that this claim of legitimacy caused to the then-military strongman, Ne Win. He would not be so shamed and thus she could not be free.
Having had years to read and reflect, and after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she will probably be more careful in her words upon her release.
Burma hasn’t changed too much in the past 21 years. Another rigged election is planned Nov. 7 – conveniently planned just a week before her release. But I will be watching carefully to see how much Suu Kyi has changed.