|Aung San Suu Kyi|
On November 13, 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi, human rights activist and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was released from house arrest. Hundred of brave supporters gathered early around the gate of her home in Rangoon, Burma. By late afternoon several thousand ran through the streets to her residence, anxious to hear the words she would share after eighteen months of confinement.
Peering over a gate with a signature flower in her hair, Suu Kyi asked her supporters to “Please have understanding with each other.” “Let's work hand in hand,” she said. The crowd was encouraged to visit the office of the party she leads, the National League for Democracy (NLD) at noon the following day.
A brutal military government has ruled Burma, sometimes called Myanmar, almost continuously since 1962. In 1990 the NLD won in the country's elections, but it was barred from taking power. Sometimes referred to as "The Lady," the Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi has spent 15 of the last 21 years in detention.
Suu Kyi's release comes only five days after a national election marred by reports of irregularities and widespread rigging. The NLD boycotted the election on the grounds that voting and party registration would take place under undemocratic conditions. Party leaders refused to register and then officially disbanded the organization. Some members began a splinter party.
In early voting the ballots of members of the armed forces and their families were automatically cast for the junta's proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). On voting day, some state employees reported that they were pressured to vote for certain candidates. Six parties not backed by the military cited irregularities in official complaints. Also that day, the army attacked Karen rebels in the northeast. By early evening over 20,000 indigenous people fled into Thailand. They join about 25,000 others who have fled persecution and live in refugee camps across the Thai-Burmese border.
|Displaced persons flee Burma into Thailand near Myawaddy|
Despite these problems and strong popular opposition, the USDP declared it won 80 percent of parliamentary seats. Of these seats, 25% were positions the military reserved for itself. China, Burma's largest economic and political ally, applauded the election as legitimate.
Suu Kyi has cautioned those who quickly equate her release with freedom. She asks what "free" means with election fraud and thousands of political prisoners jailed. Prior to her release, she stated: "I am a firm believer that individuals should have the right to engage in political activities based on one’s own beliefs [. . .] Therefore, it is not appropriate to crack down on dissidents and pro-democracy activists who do not break the laws [in their host countries]." In a BBC interview on Sunday she affirmed this position. Describing herself as a believer in the rule of law, she maintained that her arrest was unlawful.
According to Burma Campaign UK 2,200 political prisoners remain jailed. The policy of the military dictatorship has been to intermittently release elderly individuals in extremely poor health. The dictatorship refers to them as a "security concern." For more than two decades the large majority of these prisoners have suffered torture, electronic shock, rape, solitary confinement, and other abuses.
Suu Kyi's position on prisoners is often mentioned in the media, but those who are incarcerated never receive the amount of international attention she does. Their names, details about the charges against them, and information about their health remain difficult to access.
Among those who confined are Kyaw Kyaw Naing and Thin Thin Aye. Just last week, Kyaw Kyaw Naing, also a NLD member, went on a hunger strike to protest against "sham elections." He said, “I will go on hunger strike to support the 'Vote No' campaign of the NLD." He also spoke out against recent changes to the constitution that are aimed to maintain the dictatorship in power for the long term.
Thin Thin Aye emerged a leader among the Generation 88, a group taking its name from the 1988 university student demonstrations. That year state police opened fire on mass student demonstrations, leading to the deaths of approximately 3,0000. Thin Thin Aye was one of those at the forefront of the protests.
In recent years the regime behind the elections, ironically named the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has adopted superficial anti-colonial rhetoric in state-controlled media. Suu Kyi is frequently depicted as a puppet corrupted by foreign interests. Members of Generation 88 are portrayed as looters and criminals.
The SPDC recruits children as soldiers and leads violent campaigns of genocide and forced relocation against dozens of ethnic minorities. Minority homelands such as the Karen, Karenni, and Mon States have been devastated by razing, land mines, internal displacement, the separation of families, and physical violence against civilians. Thousands from these communities recently resettled in the US and Western Europe long to return to rebuild their societies.
Cooperation and dialogue remain central to Suu Kyi's vision of freedom. She points out that the NLD will support the SPDC's desire for increased foreign aid if it is beneficial to the people and supports democratic changes, including the release of political prisoners. At the time of this writing Suu Kyi is meeting with 30 foreign diplomats at the NLD office. Her release represents the possibility of eventual freedom for many.
Don E. Walicek is an Assistant Professor of English in the College of General Studies at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. (firstname.lastname@example.org)