Suu Kyi’s recent release deserves celebration, but not complacence

Credit: Celia Ludwinski/Photo Editor Credit: Celia Ludwinski/Photo Editor

This past Saturday, the Burmese ruling military government released pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Daw Aung Sang Suu Kyi from house arrest. The 65-year-old woman has spent most of the last 20 years in some form of detention because of her efforts to bring democracy to military-ruled Burma.

In 1991, a year after her National League for Democracy (NLD) political party won an overwhelming victory in an election that the military junta later ignored, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite her imprisonment, she remained a symbol of democracy and freedom for her country’s people.

While Suu Kyi’s release is certainly an event worth celebrating, the fact that it has come just days after last week’s election, which was widely agreed to be a sham — and that it follows a decades-long history of political oppression and systematic genocide of ethnic minorities — makes it only a small step toward an improved situation for much of the Burmese population.

Suu Kyi’s release has been widely accepted as a result of an increased feeling of security on the part of the military government. A BBC correspondent in Rangoon said Saturday that “it is unlikely the ruling generals would have freed Ms. Suu Kyi unless they felt confident she no longer represented a threat to them or their plans for the country.”

Burmese media has widely reported that last week’s election resulted in a secure position in both the People’s Assembly and House of Nationalities for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. However, even before the official vote, election laws reserved a quarter of seats in these two chambers of parliament for the military. Any constitutional change will require a majority of more than 75 percent, meaning the military would retain veto power regardless of election results. On the other hand, the NLD refused to participate in, or contest the results of, the election. Many had hoped the NLD would gain a majority of votes, mirroring the country’s last election in 1990. However, election laws forced the group to disband and relinquish its status as a political entity, which, by extension, stripped Suu Kyi of her previous role as party leader.

Furthermore, until she was released, Suu Kyi represented only one of over 2,200 other individuals, according to Amnesty International, who remain imprisoned by the junta for political reasons. Amnesty International said such prisoners “were being held in grim conditions, with inadequate food and sanitation. Many were in poor health and without access to proper medical treatment and had suffered torture during their initial detention.”

The release of Suu Kyi deserves celebration, but it is primarily a public relations move by an illegal government attempting to appease the greater international community and distract attention from an obviously unfair election. Her release was not brought about by any sort of political process and was certainly not representative of a shift in policy or practice. These are key issues to remember, and while we celebrate with Aung San Suu Kyi, we must be careful not to be complacent with the current government.