Tue 28 Dec 2010
Filed under: Opinion,Other
As the deadline for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release approached, nobody had a clue whether or not it was going to happen. A rumour that she would be freed a day early proved baseless. That disappointment was followed by new chatter that the junta was trying to put restrictive conditions on her freedom, conditions she was certain to reject.
So when workmen turned up in University Avenue without warning on the afternoon of 13th November and began dismantling the barricades that have prevented access to Suu Kyi’s house ever since protesting monks did a peace walk to her gate in September 2007, joy was unbounded. News spreads fast in Burma these days, despite everything the junta can do to stop it – sim cards suddenly became affordable a few months back and now mobile phones are everywhere, central Rangoon is dotted with little internet cafés, the Democratic Voice of Burma, an opposition station based in Norway, beams its satellite TV broadcasts into many Burmese homes – and in no time a large crowd had formed. When the lady herself, an incredibly youthful-looking 65, emerged and clambered up behind the steel gates to greet them, she was met by applause and raucous cheers.
It was more than seven years since she had last come face-to-face with her fellow Burmese. In the interim her party (according to American diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks) had become increasingly smug and sclerotic and a generation of Burmese had grown up for whom the great events of 1988 to 1990, when the democratic forces Suu Kyi led came tantalisingly close to achieving a revolution, were tales whispered by their parents. Yet the crowds that massed to greet her were far larger and more enthusiastic than on her last release back in 2002. Despite everything the regime has done to obliterate her name and achievements, Aung San Suu Kyi still matters. Yet the world-wide euphoria prompted by her release was in a sense misplaced, for her liberation was nothing to do with pressure from activists inside the country or diplomats outside, let alone a sign of the regime giving ground: the generals were merely applying their own rules by the book. In May 2009 the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who had already spent a total of 12 years in detention, was sentenced to three years’ additional house arrest for the crime of allowing a cranky American who had swum across Lake Inle to stay in her home for two nights. In a coup de theatre in the courtroom, that sentence was cut in half by the personal order of Than Shwe, the regime’s strongman.