A Democratic Shift in Burma? Not so fast...

A Democratic Shift in Burma? Not so fast...

On Nov. 13, officials released Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi from her most recent episode of house arrest. As they dismantled the barbed-wire barricades that had been in front of Suu Kyi’s residence throughout her confinement, hundreds of supporters and reporters waited outside. Delivering a speech the following day, she was greeted by thousands waiting to hear words from their revered leader, who has now spent 15 of the last 21 years in detention during three separate periods of house arrest starting in 1990, 2000, and 2003, with various extensions imposed throughout...

Mainstream media has focused on the rejoicing of a nation, stating that Burma’s pro-democracy leader will valiantly lift her people out of oppression now that she is free to partake in political life again. Going slightly deeper, though, we see a country whose military junta government has just held elections on Nov. 7 in which the military government (unsurprisingly) maintained total control over the country through limitations on participation, including the banning of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy.

Suu Kyi’s release does not signify a democratic shift in Burma. Approximately 2,200 other political prisoners have not yet been released. The state has a long history of dictatorial repression and abuse of human rights, about which the European Parliamentary Caucus on Burma has requested a UN investigation on war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On a further sobering note, this is simply one of a multitude of releases from detention for Suu Kyi. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to feel idealistic when the political party Suu Kyi could actually use to gain political leverage has been banned and is not legitimately recognized by the dictatorship.

The new constitution, created in 2008 and coming into practice as of the recent election, puts on a transparent façade of change with its shift toward a civilianized administration instead of the prior military rule. It appears that the new government, which will take power next year, will play a secondary role to the military’s central leadership.

One interesting step that seems likely to make change possible in the near future is the imposition of international sanctions against Burma. Suu Kyi’s position thus far has been in support of international sanctions with the intent to persuade the military government to go into direct talks with her party and ethnic leaders. However, since her release, she has expressed a willingness to change this position if it is what the public wishes.

Given the controversy over international sanctions against less economically developed countries, this could prove to be a shift for the positive. As with many relations, such as those between the United States and Iran, which have involved sanctions against countries whose citizens are susceptible to severe poverty and repressive regimes, it is likely that economic sanctions will hurt the general population much more than a government that isn’t particularly concerned with the welfare of its citizens in the first place.

The pro-democracy movement in Burma is far from its conception and at least as far from its ultimate goal, and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi represents a new chapter in this fight. While the recent election in Burma was wrought with fraud and forbid the National League for Democracy from participating, the government’s necessary transition toward more civilian administration coming near Suu Kyi’s release could serve as a catalyst for more open negotiations amongst the nation’s powers, if nothing else.

Just as no single figure can mend all the injustices of a nation, regardless of how much he or she is admired, Aung San Suu Kyi will never singlehandedly create a new Burma that fully respects human rights and all basic human needs. She may, however, manage to force Burma to take steps domestically and internationally toward the world stage as a legitimate international player and a respected power.

--Mathew Freimuth