Monday, 15 November 2010

South-east Asia needs to back Suu Kyi before euphoria fades

Only a united international response can help bring democracy to Burma.

Burma's political drama has tended to follow a well-worn script. In this story, a clique of military dictators with a draconian national security mentality face off against Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate who spearheads a popular democracy movement.
At certain moments, many of us, particularly in Western democracies, stand to applaud the courage and principled struggle of Suu Kyi and Burma's countless other democrats. Soon after the applause fades we tend to hear, in muted terms, of the crackdowns, imprisonments and heartaches that follow. Usually, our attention moves on and Burma languishes without the full-bore scrutiny its military dictatorship deserves.
When Suu Kyi was released at the weekend, an understandable wave of elation reverberated around the world. Her long-awaited freedom was tentatively greeted by an optimism that the time had come to write a new chapter in Burma's historic struggle for democratic renewal.
Many hope that Suu Kyi is destined to make history. Her father, Burma's enduring national hero, Aung San, was assassinated in 1947 just months before the country gained independence from Britain. Suu Kyi then spent many years abroad, where she lived in relative anonymity, as her country spiralled into dictatorship.
That anonymity vanished in 1988 when, as Aung San's daughter, she emerged to lead a nationwide pro-democracy movement.
Suu Kyi's commitment to democratic goals has seen her spend 15 of the past 21 years locked up. Weathering heartbreaking personal tragedies, she has steadfastly refused to compromise on the need for free and democratic political participation.
For the world and for her own people, she has maintained her defiance in the face of profound provocation and personal loss. But now that she has been released from house arrest, some serious challenges loom.
First, she will need rapid orientation to a new domestic political and social landscape. While the tyranny of Burma's military dictatorship has not faltered, the country has still changed significantly since she was last able to travel widely in 2003. Crucially, the ability of the country's military leadership to fortify themselves with revenues from foreign-funded natural resource projects has changed some of the economic equations.
Second, history suggests that international attention wanes quickly and Suu Kyi may not enjoy the luxury of a slow re-emergence.
Many hope that Burma's democrats can promptly outmanoeuvre their military rulers and catalyse a new era of national politics.
The optimists also anticipate that her gravitas and unique personal story can help knit together the country's disparate ethnic groups. Suu Kyi's father is often held up as the country's last great unifier and, as the heir to his federalist tendencies, she carries the hopes of many who live in the country's ethnic minority areas.
Third, Suu Kyi now faces a military dictatorship that has attempted to cultivate its own modicum of regional legitimacy through this month's elections. Among South-East Asian nations, and also for the leaders of key partners such as China, the elections were considered a respectable step towards greater democracy.
But could an international coalition firmly support Suu Kyi in pushing Burma's military leadership into dialogue and compromise?
Every previous effort to generate a consensus for genuinely democratic politics has failed. Any chance of success would require the active leadership of countries such as Thailand and Singapore, and it would obviously benefit from any support that the Chinese and Indian governments could muster.
Long-lasting and positive change in Burma will only come by fully engaging with the real political and economic interests of Burma's neighbours. Countries such as Australia can support this process by emphasising the need to cultivate a wider international consensus.
Burma's senior military leaders will have anticipated the elation among Westerners that has followed Suu Kyi's release. They will also expect that within days or weeks our attention will dissipate, so that they can return to governing the country with relative impunity and without daily scrutiny from the international media.
But what have they failed to anticipate? Could they prove to be blindsided by a regional effort, backed by South-East Asian voices, to support a genuinely free democratic process at this pivotal moment? The tantalising possibility of regional leaders seeking to distance themselves from the dictatorship is worth close consideration. They have been habitually circumspect in their criticism of Burma's dictatorship but, while there are few indications that a radical change of tone is imminent, they are the powers best positioned to send a strong message about their shared commitment to democratic institutions.
Leaders from Thailand and Indonesia have already welcomed Suu Kyi's release. Her dignified resistance would benefit from the region's full and unflinching support as she seeks any opportunity to change Burma for the better.

Nicholas Farrelly is a South-East Asia specialist in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. He wrote his doctoral thesis at Oxford University on politics in Burma.

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