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MYANMAR: The Stalemate Continues

Paper no :803            28. 09. 2003

by C. S. Kuppuswamy

Despite increasing international pressure, the military junta in Myanmar is unperturbed and has not given any indication for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.  Gen Khin  Nyunt who was appointed Prime Minister in end August 2003 has announced a seven-point “road map to democracy”, which is more of a repeat dose of the earlier efforts for holding a convention to amend the constitution and holding of fresh elections.  His intention is clear.  Prolong the Tatmadaw’s (Army’s) hold on the country.  

Suu Kyi  was arrested on May 30, 2003, when an orchestrated clash took place with her entourage and a pro government mob near the town of Tabayin in the north.  Though the government announced that 4 people died and 50 injured in the incident, the opposition claims that more than 70 supporters of Suu Kyi had died.  Initial reports indicated that even Suu Kyi had received head and shoulder injuries before her car sped off the scene.  This  was denied by the military junta.  Consequent to this incident, the senior members of the National League for Democracy (NLD)  in Yangon were put under house arrest and the party offices sealed.  All universities were closed for about two weeks as the military feared a students uprising like that of December 1996.  Suu Kyi is under the so called “protective custody” from May 30 till date with no signs of her release. 

Aung San Suu Kyi is  the daughter of the Myanmar independence hero Aung San. She is an alumnus of Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi.   She also stayed for six months at the Indian Institute of Advance Study at Shimla to study the subject of “Intellectual life under colonization in India and Burma” which has been subsequently published in the form of a book. Her mother Daw Khin Kyi served as Burma’s ambassador to India in the 1960s.   She married  Dr, Michael Aris, a British citizen.  He died of cancer and was not given a visa to visit her even during the last stages of his life.  Though she was permitted to visit her husband, she did not want to leave Myanmar as she was apprehensive that she may not be allowed to come back to continue the struggle.  She  was given the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award for her struggle to bring peace and democracy in Burma. 

Aung San Suu Kyi came to limelight in the 1990 elections when her party the NLD was voted as the leading party  with  a  82 % landslide victory in its favour.  This took the military junta by surprise.  Unwilling to accept the verdict of the people, the military rulers rounded up all the NLD leaders, gave them stiff and long sentences and continue to hold the reins till date. 

She has been under house arrest or detention or protective custody since 1990 on and off for long periods. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.  She was awarded the Presidential Medal for Freedom by Bill Clinton in 2000.  Inspired by the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, she has always resorted to non-violent protests against the military rulers. 

The International community has reacted more strongly this time than ever when she was arrested on May 30, 2003.  Initial reports indicated that she is being kept in Insein Jail (along with other convicts)   which is renowned for its inhuman conditions.  She was moved presumably more than once to some undisclosed locations. There were some US press reports to indicate that she was on a hunger strike since 1 September, 2003 in protest against her detention. This has been denied by the government.  She was admitted to a local hospital in Yangon on 17 September 2003 where she is believed to have undergone an operation to remove her uterus.  Except for the UN Special Envoy Razali Ismail no other outsider has met her since May 30. 

To exert pressure on the Military junta for early release of Suu Kyi efforts have been made by most of the major nations   Some  of these are:

The United States which had already imposed some sanctions clamped some more on July 28, 2003 virtually debarring all trade activities, travel restrictions and freezing of accounts. 

Britain and the European Union are also considering more trade and investment sanctions. 

Japan has frozen fresh aid to Myanmar and announced that it will not proceed with new projects to Myanmar. 

ASEAN has perhaps realized that its policy of constructive engagement and the principle of  non-interference in the internal affairs of member nations  has not worked well in the case of Myanmar.  It has already started expressing concern that the region is being affected by this intransigent attitude of the military rulers. Dr. Mahathir, the Malaysian prime minister  went to the extent of suggesting expulsion of Myanmar from the grouping.  Thailand also came up with a road map to help Myanmar achieve stability and even democracy primarily because instability in Myanmar will result in more immigrants moving to Thailand.  Thailand is also affected by the drug trafficking in Myanmar. Indonesia which is the  current chair of ASEAN deputed its former foreign minister Ali Alatas to proceed to Yangon on 21 September 2003  for talks with the military rulers on the release of Suu Kyi.  He returned on 24 September with out meeting Suu Kyi and also failed to get any positive response from the rulers on her early release. 

The United Nations has also evinced great interest and spared no efforts to get the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and for the country’s return to democracy.  UN special envoy to Myanmar, Razali Ismail a former Malaysian diplomat, had visited Myanmar a number of times in the last three years, the last one being in June 2003 immediately after her arrest on May 30 this year. He is the only foreign dignitary  who has been permitted to see her so far and he could only confirm that she was not injured and is in good health.  He has again been   deputed to visit Myanmar from September 30 to October 2, 2003. It is most unlikely that he would achieve any breakthrough.  The UN special envoy has aptly commented that he could do very little without the help of the regional powers like China, Japan and India. 

India’s reaction on the latest arrest of Suu Kyi .on May 30 has been more diplomatic and formal.  The official statement read “We have been watching very closely with concern on the recent developments in Myanmar”. 

China is the only major nation that still considers that the Suu Kyi  case is an internal matter and that no other nation should  meddle with it.  In addition it has been  supporting  Myanmar economically and  militarily  which has helped Myanmar to sustain itself against all these sanctions. China has its ulterior motives for this game, the major one being the gaining of access to the Indian Ocean. 

Why is Suu Kyi not being released ?  Sunai Phasuk, head of research of Forum Asia, a human rights group, says “Suu Kyi  (since her release from house arrest in May 2002) was strengthening her party at fascinating speed.  .. The junta obviously sees that as a clear and present danger to its legitimacy” (FEER June 12, 2003).  Despite her isolation for long periods she drew huge crowds to hear her speeches.   When ever permitted she  travelled out of Yangon to meet the common people, to open new party offices and to enlist more members.  Her popular appeal, resilience and courage is posing a challenge to the military junta. Since the 1990 elections, her party, the NLD, has formed a very important part in Myanmar’s politics.  The party is closely associated with ethnic parties and has popular domestic support. 


“Neither carrots nor sticks have worked and the military seems more firmly entrenched than at any time since it first seized power in 1962.  Not even the crumbling economy seems to threaten its power (Bertil Lintner – FEER September 25, 2003). 

“Since international pressure and persuasion have failed to prod the military junta to be more flexible, there are only two possibilities – both remote – to reverse Burma’s nightmare” (James Pringle in New York Times).  The two possibilities he is thinking of are: one - a revolt by young officers which is most unlikely as they would not like to forego the privileges which they are enjoying and two - a shoot out among the top leaders with and their supporters to bring down Than Shwe.  As he himself feels either of the two to happen is most unlikely especially because the rulers fear retribution and the status quo suits them though it is seriously hampering the nation. 

“Than Shwe will not allow Suu Kyi the chance to make another comeback regardless of what the international community says or thinks” (FEER – June 12, 2003). 

Senior General Than Shwe is becoming the second Ne Win for the nation to carry on the  “good work”. The above quotes amply portray the current situation in the country and the attitude of the rulers to move towards democracy. 

It is a pity that the international pressure has neither been consistent nor intensive.  Countries like Japan, South Korea and even Singapore in the name of constructive engagement were responsible in enabling Myanmar to circumvent the sanctions. 

With India also taking a ‘U’ turn and China continuing its strong support, the Army rule would continue.  Even today, there is none to compete with Suu Kyi in Myanmar, in her stature, charisma and political acumen.  She was perhaps born in a wrong place at the wrong time.  Otherwise she would have been one of the outstanding leaders in Asia.