Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Suu Kyi Issues a New Year Challenge

The Irrawaddy Editorial

News reports from Rangoon suggest that Burma's detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi commemorated the country’s Independence Day alone at her house—but this time not so quietly.

Behind the locked gates of her home, where she has been under house arrest since 2003, the Nobel Peace Prize winner played old songs, popular in the pre-independence era, according to members of her election-winning party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Suu Kyi has also put up a new red banner, which can be viewed from the street, with words in yellow quoting her father, independence hero Gen Aung San: “Act decisively in the interest of the nation and the people.”

Rumors are coursing through Rangoon and the diplomatic community suggesting that Suu Kyi could be released this year. If she is freed, the big question remains: who is going to ensure her safety ahead of the election in 2010?

There’s profound concern that she would again become the target of the anger of the regime and its thugs. Some Western diplomats are talking about the possibility of a “gradual freedom” for Suu Kyi in order to guarantee her safety.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday, Suu Kyi’s lawyer, Kyi Win, said Burmese authorities still have not replied to his request to meet with the detained opposition leader to discuss her appeal against her continued detention. Suu Kyi’s personal doctor, Tin Myo Win, was allowed to visit her on January 1, and he reported that she was in good health.

Two days before the doctor’s visit, nine NLD members were arrested when they staged a protest in Rangoon calling for her release. Repeated calls by world leaders and the international community for her release continue to fall on the deaf ears of the regime.

Burma entered a new year with bleak prospects for the future. In an Independence Day message, NLD Chairman Aung Shwe said candidly: “Hope for the present and future of the country is totally lacking.” Many Burmese will agree with his assessment.

Aung Shwe’s pessimism was, of course, countered by an upbeat message from junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who urged people to “cooperate in realizing the state's seven-step Road Map with union spirit and patriotic spirit with the firm resolution to build up a peaceful, modern and developed democratic nation with flourishing discipline”.

Than Shwe repeated his old refrain of accusing “neo-colonialists”—usually a reference to the West—of interfering in Burma's affairs.

“The entire people are duty-bound to safeguard the motherland...while keeping a watchful eye on attempts of neo-colonialists to harm the sovereignty of the country,” he said.

Than Shwe failed to appear at the Independence Day state dinner usually hosted by him and his wife, although he was seen in the cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta a few weeks ago and gave a speech at the Defense Services Academy in Maymyo in December.

Observers ask: Was he sick or perhaps suffering from fatigue after his travels? Or is he just depressed at seeing so little support for his “road map?”

Whatever the cause of Than Shwe’s absence from the dinner table, the less he is seen on the political stage, the better for the country. A younger generation of army leaders should be taking over progressively more of his duties and undertaking work for genuine reconciliation.

Despite the discouragement that Burmese people must feel, they should not lose faith in seeing a new democratic and prosperous Burma.

On the eve of Burma's Independence Day, the US State Department wished the Burmese people well on the 61st anniversary of their independence from British rule.

“We wish to express our warmest wishes to the people of Burma on this occasion,” said a brief State Department statement. “As we reflect on Burma's independence struggle, led by Gen Aung San, we are reminded of our own history.”

The statement said the US stands with the Burmese people in honoring Aung San's vision of an independent, peaceful and democratic Burma.

It said the US also looks forward to the day when Burma's citizens will be able to enjoy the fruits of freedom and democracy. “We earnestly hope that day will come soon,” the statement said.

In reality, it is depressing to look at Burma’s political situation, and few would argue with Aung Shwe’s sober assessment.

Nevertheless, news of Suu Kyi playing old music and putting up a new banner at her home raised some hope. The message “Act decisively in the interest of the nation and the people” has a definite meaning for many Burmese, and can be interpreted as a call to the leadership and members of the NLD.

Critics lament that over the past 20 years, NLD leaders have failed to act decisively to seize and exploit political opportunities as they present themselves.

Even during the “Saffron Revolution” of 2007, some critics said NLD leaders lagged behind the mass uprising when monks and activists bravely took to the streets. Now they sit and watch from the sidelines as Than Shwe prepares to implement his “road map” to “disciplined democracy.”

Although the year 2009 begins with depressing news, Suu Kyi’s new banner demanding decisive action in the interests of the nation poses a challenge to all Burmese, including members of the armed forces—and also to world leaders and the entire international community.

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