Myanmar: The Return of the Lady


David Scott Mathieson

The possible release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest raises important questions about Burma’s immediate political future. If the SPDC decides to grant the democracy leader conditional release, it also needs to address the level of involvement she will have in both the ‘Road Map’ process and the National Convention to write a new constitution, which convenes on 17 May. The evident thaw in relations was signalled in early April by the release from house arrest of senior National League for Democracy (NLD) figures U Lwin and U Aung Shwe. The rumoured release of Suu Kyi and fellow leader U Tin Oo will inject greater complexity into a political landscape much changed since the violent crackdown of 30 May 2003. An emphasis on the deadlock between the regime and the NLD conceals other trends in the country, which threaten to derail or delay the peace process.

The NLD remains a ghost of its former self. Despite office re-openings and the release of key personnel, last year’s crackdown on the party further denuded its already weak political effectiveness. The government still holds nearly 1,300 political prisoners who will not be given a role in political reforms. In December 2003 and January 2004, talks between the SPDC and the Karen National Union (KNU), the world’s longest running insurgency, produced a temporary cease-fire. Armed exchanges between the two armies have continued. A recent report detailing routine use of rape against Karen women by the Myanmar army has raised questions about the unity of the Karen political structure. The cease-fire is deeply unpopular in the civilian population, and rumours of a forcible relocation of some 130,000 refugees currently in Thailand back into Myanmar has raised fears of a major humanitarian crisis. It is clear that the KNU have sought a peace deal in order to attend the National Convention. The beleaguered Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) has also sought peace talks and a respite from major human rights abuses in the small Karenni State. This leaves only the Shan State Army-South as the major insurgent group holding out. The Shan opposition has a sophisticated political structure that includes the second most successful electoral party in the country.

The involvement of many ethnic militia groups in the National Convention conceals the fact that some of the leaders, particularly the Wa and Kokang, are heavily involved in illegal narcotics production. Other cease-fire ethnic groups are still waiting to hear what their role and restrictions will be in the process. Optimism over opium eradication success has concealed a looming famine, which required the World Food Program (WFP) to mount an emergency operation to feed 180,000 farmers in Northern Shan State dislocated by brutal crop eradication methods. Routine forcible relocations and forced labour continues in the Shan State and throughout other conflict zones in the country, and these events, much criticised by the international community, may well be overshadowed by developments in Yangon.

Suu Kyi’s release may only have symbolic value, and could be geared more to secure international support at the expense of broader domestic and ethnic concerns. The United States continues its hard-line stance against the regime and prospects that sanctions will be loosened coming up to the US’ one year review are remote. US policy makers also claimed that efforts for World Bank re-engagement with Myanmar would be blocked. The recent ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) postponed membership of Myanmar, despite intense lobbying by Asian members such as China and Thailand. There is considerable debate over the efficiency of sanctions and the divergent approach by Western and Asian countries, and unless there is greater support from the US and Europe, any reform process will be adversely affected.

WATCHPOINT: What role will Daw Aung San Suu Kyi play in the impending National Convention and to what extent will this dominate events over wider ethnic and social concerns?


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