A Mandela moment
WHEN NOBEL Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi attends the “Electric Burma” concert today in Dublin to receive Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience award from U2 singer Bono, it will be a moment of celebration and a chance to reflect on the transformation of Burma from a brutal military dictatorship to a country facing into a democratic future.
When Suu Kyi last visited Europe in 1988, Charles Haughey was Taoiseach, the Berlin Wall stood, and the Internet was science fiction. That same year, the military junta, which had seized power in the former British colony in 1962, ordered a crackdown on democracy activists and killed about 3,000 student protesters. In the intervening 24 years, Suu Kyi has spent 15 years under house arrest in Rangoon, and even during her periods of freedom, never dared leave as she knew the generals would not let her return.
Her dignity and defiance made her a symbol of hope for democrats all over the world. It is right she should enjoy her moment of recognition in Europe and receive in person the Nobel Peace Prize awarded her in 1991.
The rate of change in Burma since November 2010 has been rapid. President Thein Sein, a former general, has transferred power from the army to civilian rule, freed political prisoners, relaxed censorship, and allowed Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy to function. Where previously Suu Kyi suffered, now she triumphs. She received US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at her house in Rangoon, as a free woman. She became a member of parliament two months ago after a landslide by-election win for the NLD.
These achievements aside, Suu Kyi’s political struggle is only beginning. In the next few months she will have to ensure reform stays on track. In Burma, most commentators believe the changes are real but warn that Thein Sein has stuck his neck out very far. It is vitally important that international sanctions introduced over the past few decades in response to human rights abuses and broader oppression, such as the violent crackdown on democracy in 2007, begin to be removed.
If sanctions are not lifted and Burma does not see real economic development as a result, Thein Sein will come under huge pressure from military hardliners to stand aside and let the junta resume control. There are rumblings of unease from the generals over how to deal with regional conflicts in Burma’s multi-ethnic constellation. In the western state of Rakhine, fighting between Buddhists and Muslims has prompted a state of emergency. Ethnic minorities want more autonomy within a federal structure, along the lines of a plan drafted by Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San, in 1947. The chances of the generals tolerating that are slim.
She upstaged Thein Sein at the World Economic Forum in Bangkok, and angered him further by meeting Burmese rebels on the Thai border. After her suffering in the past, trusting the generals does not come easy. When the roars of the crowd from her first European tour recede, her task at home will be back to ensuring reform continues and Burma does not slide into chaos.