Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why Burma’s Generals Fear the Lady of the Lake

The Irrawaddy News

Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to be sentenced to five years in jail when her secret trial in Insein Prison draws to an end later this month. The country’s military rulers are expected to put her in solitary confinement in a house that is currently being built inside the Ye Mon military camp, located on the outskirts of the former capital, Rangoon.

The country’s political heroine and Nobel Peace Prize laureate has already spent 14 of the last 20 years in detention.

She was first arrested in July 1989 and remained under house arrest for six years. Since then, she has been incarcerated in her home on several occasions for shorter periods. She has just completed another six years under house arrest.

But in this latest episode, she is charged with breaking the conditions of her current house arrest because of the visit of a deranged American Vietnam War veteran, John William Yettaw, who allegedly swam across the lake to her back door.

Many opposition politicians fear that the regime is motivated by only one concern: to ensure that Suu Kyi cannot disrupt their planned elections next year.

“The junta fears Aung San Suu Kyi and wants to keep her locked up forever,” said Zin Linn, a spokesman for the Burmese opposition abroad. “They especially do not want her to be free to campaign during the elections.”

But the fears of Burma’s military rulers, especially the top boss, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, are far greater than that. What they cannot accept is entering a real political dialogue with the opposition leader and her pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). For that would mean making concessions, something the military rulers cannot contemplate.

“We can never make concessions, as that would be tantamount to surrendering,” former spy chief and prime minister, Gen Khin Nyunt, warned Suu Kyi in a letter not long before he was purged by Than Shwe.

The generals know that while they may be the masters on the battlefield, they are inept in the civilian arena, and no match for the Lady. When it comes to political affairs, Suu Kyi is the supreme strategist. She understands completely that what is needed to resolve Burma’s current political deadlock and economic stagnation is genuine dialogue.

Even in the midst of her current crisis, Suu Kyi, in her own way, renewed her call for dialogue when she told three diplomats from Russia, Singapore and Thailand who were allowed to see her in the first week of the trial that maybe something good could still come out of this unfortunate incident.

This was a clear appeal to the junta—sitting in secret seclusion in their bunker-capital north of Rangoon—to start a meaningful political dialogue with the pro-democracy parties and the country’s ethnic groups. They can throw me in jail or keep me locked up for as long as they like, provided they start a genuine dialogue, she has often said—and that was what she told me when I saw her last in March 2003, in Rangoon, a few weeks before her fateful trip upcountry.

She has always, in a self-effacing way, made it clear that her struggle is that of the Burmese people as a whole—not one for personal power. When her husband Michael Aris and their two sons accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf in 1991, while she was still under house arrest for the first time, her acceptance speech, smuggled out of the country, was typical of her feelings. The honor was not for her alone, she said, but for all Burmese people in their struggle for democracy.

Since Suu Kyi returned to Rangoon to look after her ill mother in 1987, she has always put her personal concerns aside for the sake of the Burmese people.

“I draw inspiration from the courage and sacrifice of the ordinary Burmese people,” she often said to me in telephone interviews during the few years after she was freed for the first time in July 10, 1995, after six years under house arrest.

But Than Shwe cannot even abide hearing her name, according to many ministers and diplomats who have had the rare opportunity to meet him in the last few years. This remains one of the key obstacles to resolving Burma’s political deadlock. Burma’s top generals are not interested in a concrete dialogue with the pro-democracy leader.

“We’ve been trying to get them to the negotiating table for 14 years, but they have never been keen on the idea,” she told me the last time we met in March 2003—the last foreign journalist to interview her before her trip to Upper Burma, which ended in her current stint under house arrest.

Suu Kyi has repeatedly offered to discuss the country’s political future with the generals. Everything is negotiable if they start meaningful talks, she told me weeks before she was detained for the third time six years ago following an attack on her and her entourage by pro-government thugs in what is now called Black Friday.

“We are in opposition to each other at the moment, but we should work together for the sake of the country. We certainly bear no grudges against them. We are not out for vengeance. We want to reach the kind of settlement which will be beneficial to everybody, including the members of the military,” she said to me at the time.

Since 1995, there have been several abortive attempts to establish a process of national reconciliation, especially in the period after 2000, when Khin Nyunt was involved in informal contact with Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest. But this came to naught, as Than Shwe thought he did not need the pro-democracy people to bring about political change in Burma.

But Suu Kyi has persisted in trying to convince the regime that she, at least, was prepared to negotiate, and that meant making concessions. “What we’ve always said is that dialogue is not a competition,” she told me six years ago.

“We don’t want a dialogue in order to find out who is the better person, or which is the smarter organization. We have always said that the only winner, if we settle down to negotiations, the only winner, will be the country,” she said.

Suu Kyi has repeatedly made conciliatory gestures towards the regime. As the daughter of the independence hero and founder of modern Burma, Gen Aung San, she understands the military mentality and is prepared to work with them.

“We have genuine goodwill towards the Burmese military. I personally look upon it with a certain amount of affection because of my father and I want it to have an honorable position in the country,” she told me at the NLD headquarters, weeks before the regime showed its true colors.

But all these overtures by the Lady have fallen on deaf ears. Burma’s top general is completely convinced that by keeping Suu Kyi in detention, he can marginalize her and reduce her influence in the country. It is a vain hope, as the international protests since her arrest last month and the growing anger inside the country prove.

Her demeanor in court also shows that she is far from daunted by the isolation and unresponsiveness of the regime to her repeated offers of talks on national reconciliation. There could be many opportunities for national reconciliation if all parties wanted it, she told the rare meeting with diplomats recently, according to Singaporean diplomatic sources. The intrusion into her home should not be used to get at the Burmese authorities, she said.

But it now seems certain that Suu Kyi will be sentenced in the next few days to another five years in jail. But she is undeterred by the years of detention. When I met her on the day she was released last time—May 6, 2002—she confided that the isolation gave her plenty of time for reading, reflection and meditation.

What keeps her going is inspiration she draws from her father and the sacrifices of the Burmese people.

“I always have been strengthened and inspired by my father. Even now, sometimes when I go over his old speeches, they are as relevant now as they were then—he was indeed a man of vision,” she confided to me as I left the NLD headquarters.

It is this humility, charisma, commitment and strength that make Suu Kyi the inspirational icon she has become for the NLD and the Burmese battle for democracy. No wonder the generals feel it necessary to keep her silent, this time behind bars in Insein Prison.

Six years ago, she told me you cannot wake up a man who is pretending to sleep—alluding to an old Burmese adage which she felt summed up Than Shwe’s attitude. Now it is time to try again to wake the old man up from his slumber.

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