July 20th marked the 20th anniversary of the day when military rulers first placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. The leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement has since spent more than 13 years detained at home or,as now,in a Yangon prison. She awaits the verdict of a sham trial in which she was charged with breaking the terms of her detention after an uninvited American,a nut,swam across to her lakeside home. Miss Suu Kyi plays a long game. But so does the military. It seized power in 1962. It has used force to put down two extraordinarily brave sets of pro-democracy protests,in 1988 and 2007. And it has ignored the result of free elections in 1990,convincingly won by Miss Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
Miss Suu Kyi,64 and frail,has not wavered in her call for the junta to respect the election result and free what are now thought to be 2,100 political prisoners. She has long argued for countries to apply pressure by forbidding companies to trade with Myanmar or invest in it. The West has responded with sanctions regimes. Britain’s prime minister,Gordon Brown,recently called for even tougher financial measures against Myanmar.
There is no doubting Miss Suu Kyi’s courage. A decade ago she turned down the generals’ offer to leave the country (presumably,for good) to care for her dying husband. She never saw him again. Two sons have not seen their mother for years. Miss Suu Kyi’s moral stature puts her on a level with other imprisoned or exiled symbols of quiet resistance,the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. She keeps democratic hopes alive in Myanmar; and around the world she inspires campaigners for freedom in the face of thuggish regimes. Elegant and dignified,she is the person any engaged liberal at Harvard or Oxford most wants to invite to dinner but can’t. This year garden parties at British embassies celebrating the Queen’s birthday were decorated with portraits of Miss Suu Kyi. At the embassy in Jakarta,a picture of her is projected onto an outside wall. She is,literally,democracy’s poster girl.
For weeks the military regime has delayed pronouncing a verdict in its trial,perhaps so as not to embarrass fellow members of the ten-country Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN),meeting for its annual summit this week in Thailand. Yet few doubt but that Miss Suu Kyi will be put away for even longer. Her house,which has become a shrine to the democracy movement’s living deity,may be confiscated and razed. Myanmar’s leaders have called for elections next year,but on terms that ensure the military is the force behind civilian rule. Having Miss Suu Kyi to stand and fight is not part of the programme.
An even longer game,then,for Miss Suu Kyi and her supporters. But is it the right one? A growing body of opinion thinks not. It follows a tedious ritual. The world calls for freedom and democracy. The United Nations dispatches a representative to Yangon. He is fobbed off. The Lady continues in detention. The UN’s most recent big cheese was none other than the secretary-general. Ban Ki-moon left Yangon earlier this month without being allowed to meet Miss Suu Kyi.
This costs more than just wasted journeys. Myanmar is rich in natural gas,timber and gems. China and India,strategic rivals to east and west,chummy up to the junta. The Burmese elite has second homes and bank accounts in Thailand. Russia sells the generals arms,as does China,and both provide cover for the generals on the Security Council. So Myanmar does now in fact engage with the world-but its engagement takes the ugly form of a rapacious capitalism with amoral partners. Hillary Clinton,on her first trip to Asia as secretary of state,admitted that isolation “hasn’t influenced the junta”. An American review of Myanmar policy is under way,but official silence over Miss Suu Kyi’s trial hints at a certain confusion. Because there is no engagement,America’s soft power has no traction.
Worse,everyone from the UN down views Myanmar through the lens of democracy above all else – even development. For a desperate country with shocking rates of disease and mortality such a priority is dubious at best,shameful at worst. If nothing else,it fails to acknowledge how development can improve local governance. In the Irrawaddy delta in the wake of cyclone Nargis,which struck last year killing 140,000,deciding how humanitarian aid should be spent has increased civic participation and local autonomy in the face of an uncaring regime. Yet apart from Japan,official aid levels to Myanmar are pitiful compared even with other poor countries.
Icon or obstacle?
Lastly,depicting Myanmar as a kind of velvet revolution gone wrong,as Thant Myint-U,a historian of Burma,points out,is to ignore a big part of the picture. The paranoid regime’s inward-looking cast is conditioned by centuries of invasions,among them by the British and,after independence in 1948,by American-backed Chinese Nationalists. Since independence,the military has faced dozens of communist and ethnic insurgencies. It is true that since the 1990s,ceasefires have been signed in all but two. But independent Burma did not emerge as a unified state and,under early democratic rule,insurgencies flourished. The remaining conflicts,financed by drugs trafficking,are the longest-running wars in the world. They cannot simply be ignored.
Sanctions have helped bring about no democratic transition in Asia on the contrary. So imagine if the West reversed policy,dropped sanctions and pursued engagement. The generals have already looked at the development paths blazed by China and Vietnam and said they want to follow. In comparison to the regimes in those two countries,Myanmar’s badly lacks legitimacy. So Mr Thant says that development could bring about swift changes to the political landscape,as eventually happened in Indonesia. Development,in other words,could be the fastest path to democracy. Will the courageous Lady admit as much?
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009