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In a glass palace

Myanmar's military junta has won the elections hands down. But the role that the country's most famous leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, will play isn't clear, writes Sagari Chhabra.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 16:55 IST
Sagari Chhabra
Sagari Chhabra
Hindustan Times

No one expected the Myanmar military junta's elections to be fair. But how flawed should things be allowed to get? The military-supported USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) has cornered 80% seats (they are still counting as we go to press), but then who had predicted 'advance voting' with government employees instructed to vote in front of officials, villagers in the presence of village heads and soldiers before their commanders?

The National League of Democracy (NLD), headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, which won over 80% seats in the last elections, did not even contest. The papers for Suu Kyi's release from house arrest have been signed as her incarceration ends today. She has been detained for 15 of the past 21 years.

In fact, along with nine other parties, including the Shan Nationalities League of Democracy, the NLD has been de-registered and is now outlawed in Myanmar. The new constitution — nicknamed the Nergis Constitution as it came into effect when the country was ravaged by a devastating cyclone — reserves a fourth of the seats in the two houses for the military along with key ministries that will also be headed by the military. The Commander-in-Chief can assume full sovereign power by declaring an emergency.

Myanmar is also plagued by a lack of unity among 135 nationalities including eight major ones — namely Araken, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan, and the Burmese. Neither the years of parliamentary democracy, between 1948 and 1962, nor the subsequent years have seen any resolution of the civil strife in Myanmar. The NLD and some ethnic allies created a new avenue on October 24, as they have agreed to work towards the second Pinglong Conference, which will be a new political platform. This is a progressive move since the Committee Representing Peoples' Parliament (CRPP), which was formed on September 16, 1998, to work on behalf of the 1990 parliament, becomes irrelevant after the 2010 election charade.

In the context of so much power being institutionalised in the world's longest-running, most tyrannical regime, with the backing of China and a studied silence from the country's democratic neighbour, what is the future of Aung San Suu Kyi and the other 2,000 political prisoners? Since the military has consolidated itself in more palatable terms, some would say that Aung San Suu Kyi, for whose freedom the United Nations General Assemby has been passing a resolution every single year, should now be allowed to participate in politics.

Perhaps she has been rendered unnecessary in the new scheme of things. A carefully-plotted roadmap to squash dissenters, unveiling an iniquitous constitution and having a full-scale drama of an election have all gone off, according to General Than Swe's meticulous plans. It would also lend a more democratic image to the electoral farce, which has propelled several thousand refugees to flee to neighbouring Thailand. As I travelled across Myanmar earlier, I saw how even the Burmese people have to register at the nearest police station by 8 pm if they are to have an overnight guest and that the only construction activity I witnessed was the building of a new prison on the road to Maymyo. An entire generation has grown up in a glass palace prison.

In April 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi went with a group of her party activists to the Irrawaddy Delta. They arrived by boat in the town of Danubyu. As they walked towards the local NLD office, they found their way blocked by soldiers who pointed automatic guns towards them. Suu Kyi urged her people to keep moving even as the captain in-charge threatened to shoot. Just then a senior officer rushed and ordered his men to step aside. Suu Kyi had followed in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi and adopted his policy of satyagraha in Myanmar. She had hoped that this would spread across the country and the second struggle for freedom in Myanmar will be played out on similar lines. It did not happen. She was placed under house arrest on July 20, 1989.

As some one who spent several months researching in Myanmar, living down the road from Suu Kyi's house in the hope of meeting her, her release was something I, along with several across the world, prayed for. The frail lady is feared by the military. The lady with flowers in her hair, throttled in a bottleneck vase for the last 15 years, symbolises the results and hopes of the last elections that were never honoured. Her release will upset the 'unjust peace' that is about to settle over Myanmar.

It is, however, about time that the world that awarded Suu Kyi the Nobel Peace Prize and India, which honoured her with the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, presses for a greater role in Myanmar's affairs for her. A democratic voice that represents the just aspirations of its people cannot be suppressed anymore.

The military junta, now that it has doffed its blood-soaked uniforms, is camouflaging itself in pleasant, sweet terms and has won the elections hands down, could perhaps be pushed to do a nice, gentlemanly act — engage with Suu Kyi. While the Myanmar court rejected her appeal for the reversal of General Than Swe's order , the executive order rescinded it. It takes credit for releasing her; for even generals like to appear virtuous. Suu Kyi has not been able to see her own children for years. Her son, Kim, has just been granted a visa to visit her. But don't forget that Suu Kyi was not even allowed to visit her dying husband Michael Aris. The British High Commissioner carried her farewell letter to him, in secret.

Meanwhile, the world continues to watch with bated breath for the one preaches and practises ahimsa to take her rightful place in guiding the destiny of Myanmar's long-suffering people.

Sagari Chhabra is a writer and film director. Her forthcoming book In Search Of Freedom is based on her stay in Myanmar. The views expressed by the author are personal. Barkha Dutt's fortnightly column Third Eye will return on November 27.

First Published: Nov 12, 2010 22:11 IST