The release of Aung San Suu Kyi by the Myanmar military regime in the middle of 1995 was hailed by Western political analysts, commentators and diplomats as a "triumph of democracy" made possible by their unrelenting pressure on the generals ruling that country. Those Westerners anticipated a quick emergence of democracy in Myanmar, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, replacing what they called a military dictatorship guilty of repeated human rights violations. Western political analysts expected an imminent Marcos-style exit by the Generals in the face of an irresistible "people's revolution".
But the approach taken by the Southeast Asian nations (better known as ASEAN) was more cautious. Like the West, they also claimed credit for Suu Kyi's release, attributing it to what they termed ASEAN leadership's "constructive engagement" with the Myanmar military regime. Also like their Western counterparts, ASEAN leaders hoped for change of the guard in Myanmar's political establishment.
A few days after Suu Kyi's release, I submitted my "Letter From the Far East" column to the Pakistani newspaper The Nation ("Suu Kyi's Release and Myanmar's Future," 30 July 1995). I applauded Suu Kyi for her attitude and statements following her release and called her "a great political realist who believes in evolution and gradualism", someone who had "total humility" and no "delusion of self-importance".
Initially she talked about "national reconciliation", and her statement that "as far as I am concerned, dialogue means everything is open to negotiation and discussion" was very encouraging. However, I also warned that the Western claim that the generals had acted out of a position of weakness was a tenuous one and that, despite the claims of victory being voiced by both Western and ASEAN politicians and pundits, the release of Suu Kyi did not in itself mean much. I predicted that she would: (1) turn out to be an ineffective political figure, and (2) the only viable solution for the political impasse in Myanmar was a power-sharing agreement between herself and the Generals.
Time has validated my suspicions. Now that Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) have not in three years been able to rustle a single leaf in the political landscape of Myanmar, would it be too much to write her off politically?
There is more than one reason for answering in the affirmative.
To start with, since her release Suu Kyi's personal character has been shown to be something less than mature. On the one hand, she has preached patience to her supporters and indicated that she is willing to have dialogue with the generals about the political future of Myanmar ("Everything is negotiable"). But, whipped up by assurances from the West, she has also reacted negatively to the idea that in future the army might have a constitutional role. "That is unacceptable", she says.
In her strategy vis-a-vis the Generals, Suu Kyi probably thought that she could wrest any concessions she wanted simply by her alternating smiles and frowns. She probably forgot that she was in fact a powerless "Queen of the People", the West's favourite appellation for her. But whatever her theoretical political power, from day one she was no match for the Generals' military hardware and personnel. By presenting a recalcitrant--dare we say "dictatorial"?-- attitude toward them she has rendered no service to the cause of democracy in her country, and in the process she has lost a great deal of credibility.
Why has Suu Kyi not been able to read the situation more accurately? Perhaps because she has relied too much on external forces, i.e. the West: high-sounding pro-Suu Kyi coverage by Western media that portray her as a freedom fighter; the sudden and entirely unjustifiable award of a Nobel Peace Prize to her; condescending Western threats to the Myanmar Generals to relinquish power in her favour or "face the consequences". With all these supporting her, Suu Kyi started giving it about that the generals would soon cave in. That was a blunder on her part astutely exploited by the Myanmar regime: the Generals have successfully portrayed her as a Western stooge who has spent most of her life in Europe and has even married a Westerner. Hence their propaganda that such an alien cannot be allowed to rule Myanmar.
Suu Kyi's weekly speeches from her residence (attended by only a handful of supporters) have been more of an I-am-still-alive exercise than anything of significance. The impression she creates is that of a grande dame, not of a genuine political leader.
Another crucial factor that has contributed to the strength of the Generals and the undermining of Suu Kyi is the economic situation in Myanmar. American attempts to put an economic embargo on Myanmar in order to force out the Generals have met with strong opposition from countries like Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia. The economic growth rate in Myanmar has been steadily increasing, and countries like the US have not been able to halt new foreign investment.
It is important to note that despite vociferous Western propaganda, no claim regarding economic mismanagement on the part of the Generals has been credibly made. Moreover, the present regime has made peace with its neighbours and resolved most internal insurgencies by ethnic groups. With the economic house in order and a state of peace prevailing within the country and on the borders, it is unlikely the people would rally around Suu Kyi enough to place her in office at any significant cost to their own economic well-being.
The call for a "people's revolution" from the neo-imperialist countries of the West is too unreal for even an illiterate Asian to digest. The US and its allies have killed more revolutions and destroyed more democracies than they have helped create. Supporters of a "people's revolution" in Myanmar conveniently forget that revolutions are not made in diplomatic chambers or by threatening resolutions. Revolutionary leaders have never succeeded by standing on the shoulders of imperialists and cold warriors. It is the people of a country who bring about a revolution. That is why the Shah was overthrown despite a wholesale Western campaign against Ayatollah Khomeini. That is also why today the US-supported Chiang Kai-shek regime is scarcely mentioned and Ho Chi Minh has prevailed. Besides, the Myanmar Generals are themselves sons of the soil. They are not CIA transplants who amass fortunes in foreign banks and safely flee the country when the political scene becomes violent--or are physically eliminated like Pakistan's General Zia, the best American "friend" in the history of South Asia.
Politics is like a game of cricket or a golf tournament where anything is possible. But if Suu Kyi continues in her present ways, relying on her Western well-wishers and political patrons to look out for her, one of these days I may find myself writing a political obituary for the pretty darling of the West and Queen in Waiting of the people of Myanma aka Burma.
(Abbas Zaidi <email@example.com> was editor of The Ravi (1985), Pakistan's premier and oldest academic magazine published by Government College, Lahore. He also edited Interface (1990-91) for the Program in Literary Linguistics, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Zaidi has taught English Literature in Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, and worked as assistant editor for The Nation, Lahore.)