Aung San Suu Kyi Arrested, Again

Saying Goodbye to Reconciliation?

Aung San Suu Kyi
Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (Photo: Steven Shaver/AFP-Getty Images).

On the eve of the United Nations special envoy’s visit to Burma [Myanmar], the reconciliation process has hit a major snag. The Burmese junta has detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and 18 other people from her National League for Democracy (NLD) since Friday [May 30]. [Suu Kyi won Myanmar’s 1990 national elections, though the military rulers refused to honor the vote. —WPR]

The detention took place after members of the state-run Union Solidarity and Development Associa-tion (USDA) attacked the motorcade carrying Aung San Suu Kyi and her party members near a village in central Burma’s Sagaing division. Suu Kyi was on her way back from a successful trip to Kachin state in northern Burma.

It is not clear what motivated the regime to take such a drastic action against the NLD. There are numerous theories. The main hypothesis is that the Burmese generals were extremely concerned about Suu Kyi’s trips across Burma. The trips allowed people to see Suu Kyi firsthand, which garnered significant grass-roots support for the NLD. Her visits also encouraged people to come out and show opposition to the military rule by cheering for Suu Kyi. Unfortunately, the regime’s per-petual fear may have ended the trips.

Though nothing concrete can be said about the future of the NLD leadership and the political reconciliation process, the latest incident is certainly a bad omen for Burma. It shocked the nation and angered countless people across the world. Most significantly, it may have squashed what little chance Burma had for reconciliation between the military rulers and the opposition.

According to the Burmese junta, four people were killed and 50 wounded. They also allege that the incident was a scuffle between Suu Kyi’s supporters and USDA members, not an attack on the NLD entourage. The regime calls the detention “protective custody,” a euphemism for incarcerating dissidents without trial for an indefinite period.

With telephone lines cut and the NLD leadership in detention, there is no way to verify the story the Burmese regime has told the world. However, conflicting reports are slowly emerging.

Contrary to the statement the regime issued the day after the attack, there are reports of NLD leaders in the provinces being rounded up by the regime. The Irrawaddy reported that a number of people from Mandalay who were with Suu Kyi at the time of the attack have failed to return home. The death toll is likely to be higher than the regime officially stated.

Eyewitness accounts also differ from official statements regarding the incident. Witnesses say it was not a fight between supporters of the two factions; it was an orchestrated attack perpe-trated by USDA members and soldiers from a nearby military base.

The situation is very serious. Aside from the detention of the NLD leaders, the regime has shut down the universities and high schools across the country, fearing an uprising. And the Burmese generals are not allowing diplomats and U.N. personnel in Rangoon [Yangon] access to Suu Kyi. [U.N. special envoy Razali Ismail was allowed to see her June 10. —WPR]

The attack on and detention of NLD leaders may be the final indication that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has miserably failed in its “quiet diplomacy” aimed at bringing a political settlement in Burma. In particular, the latest saga is likely to be the personal failure of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is a close ally of the Burmese regime. He not only staunchly supported Burma’s accession to ASEAN in 1997 but also visited Rangoon twice and tried to convince the regime to change.

The recent attack is not the first time NLD has been targeted, but this time is much more serious. In November 1996, approximately 200 “hired thugs” attacked an NLD motorcade carrying Suu Kyi and two other senior leaders. The assault took place in broad daylight in Rangoon. And it happened before the eyes of police and army officers, who did nothing to intervene.

Just like the regime’s assault on the NLD seven years ago, the regime appears to be unfazed by any criticisms or condemnations. It has not attempted to explain or cover up the incident. The regime appears to be patiently waiting to see how the Burmese people and the international community will react. Since the international community is unlikely to react in concrete ways, it may be safe to say that the regime is off one major hook.

Hope therefore hinges on two conditions. One is the visit of Razali, the U.N. special envoy, which is scheduled for June 6-10. The worst-case scenario is that he leaves empty-handed.

Hope also depends on the response of the Burmese people. Like everyone else, they may be waiting for Razali’s arrival. But they know that if he cannot deliver, then the responsibility to confront the regime may land squarely on their shoulders. Change may therefore depend on the Burmese people’s transforming their anger and bitterness into action—action aimed at making the regime resurrect the dialogue. If they are not up to the task, we may all have to say goodbye to the reconciliation process.