Aung San Suu Kyi: Free at Last

Aung San Suu Kyi
Crowds of supporters press in on Aung San Suu Kyi upon her release from a 20-month house arrest, May 6, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The release of Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from a 20-month house arrest raises high hopes that dialogue between the opposition and the military regime, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is moving forward in a tangible way. The junta said it had turned a new page for the people of Myanmar, formerly Burma, and the international community.

Suu Kyi, the opposition leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), can now travel unrestricted throughout the country. She used the first day of her freedom to visit her party’s headquarters and declared that she would continue to fight for democracy.

Burmese in exiles in Bangkok and around the world, however, have mixed feelings about the news. While they welcome the release, they are also wary of the junta’s tactics. According to reports, the refusal of Western countries to invest in Myanmar and the resource crunch the country has been facing contributed to the junta’s decision to release Suu Kyi. Additionally, she has been arrested and released before, after traveling outside Yangon to do political work. The Burmese exiles want the estimated 1,500 prisoners jailed since 1988 to be set free and the outcome of the May 1990 election, in which the NLD won 59.9 percent of the votes, recognized.

The Irrawaddy—a Burmese-exile magazine published in Bangkok—commented (May 7):  “The SPDC have played their cards right and freed the Lady....Only time will tell if this is cosmetic surgery to present a kinder, gentler SPDC face to the world, or just another chapter in Burma’s long struggle on the road to democracy.”

The magazine questioned the credibility of Ismail Razali, who negotiated Suu Kyi’s release with the junta. Razali is chairman of IRIS Technologies, a Malaysian firm operating under the auspices of the government. He reportedly owns 30 percent of the company. The firm has signed a deal with the junta to supply Burma with 5,000 electronic passports. The Irrawaddy wrote: “When IRIS lists publicly later this year, Razali will be able to point to his work with the United Nations to show that investing in the pariah state is not such a bad thing after all, even though possession of a fax machine can earn one a lengthy stay in prison and the Internet remains science-fiction for most Burmese.”

Populist Bangkok daily Kao Sod criticized ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) for taking credit for Suu Kyi’s release (May 8): “The ASEAN leaders have nothing to do with her release and should not claim any credit due to the grouping’s principle of nonintervention.” 

Bangkok's center-right, mass-circulation  Daily News pointed out (May 8) that “Aung San Suu Kyi has been living in detention and isolation, which has caused uproars in the international community.” The daily added: “But there is a silent transformation within her....The detention has made her stronger than steel.”