Breaking with its general policy of non-interference with internal affairs of a member state, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) urged the Burmese government to free Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi, along with other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), have been detained since 30 May after a violent attack on her and her party as they were traveling to the north of the country in support of NLD activities. While a very welcome step, much more needs to be done.
On February 18, I met with Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Rangoon. It was the first successful visit of another Nobel Peace Laureate with Suu Kyi since she was awarded the Peace Prize in 1991. We talked about the situation in her country since she had been freed from house arrest in May 2002 and our discussions are borne by recent events.
With her May release, there had been hope that it would signal steps toward a democratic government in Burma. But in our meeting, she talked about the fact that there had been no dialogue between her party and the State Peace And Development Council (SPDC), the military regime that clings to power.
In our discussions then about the continuing stalemate, Aung San Suu Kyi was absolutely clear that “there is no way for the SPDC to escape dialogue” if there is to be a peaceful transition to democracy in her country. Not only has the stalemate continued, but now also violence has been inflicted on her and her party by the military regime.
Even before this latest attack on democracy activists by the SPDC, the junta had been increasing its harassment of Suu Kyi and other National League for Democracy (NLD) members. In those first ten months after her release from house arrest, there were arrests of about 60 new political prisoners, some of whom received long prison terms.
An estimated 1,400 political prisoners still remained in detention and there had been no releases since November 2002. Even in February, Suu Kyi had noted that the regime had stepped up its propaganda attacks against the NLD in the press and had launched a “pamphlet campaign” slandering her – even as she still remained “free” to move about the country.
Suu Kyi’s May trip to the north of Burma was to mark the one-year anniversary of her release from house arrest. Apparently, the SPDC could no longer tolerate her work to revive democracy in Burma – particularly because of the size and enthusiasm of the crowds of her supporters who were coming out to hear her speak -- and violently removed her from the public eye.
The anti-democracy crackdown has continued with the junta detaining several more NLD leaders since Suu Kyi’s capture as well as ordering the arrest of even more.
Calls were heard in much of the world for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other detained members of her party. The addition of the very important voice of ASEAN is most welcome. But, this is a bare minimum.
International pressure must be increased on the SPDC to engage in full and open dialogue with Suu Kyi and the NLD for transition to democracy in the shortest term possible. It has been thirteen years since the NLD won overwhelmingly in national elections in Burma and still has not been allowed to form the government that the people of Burma called upon it to do.
In our February meeting, Suu Kyi was clear that her party was unflinching in its continued call for the strengthening of economic sanctions against the military junta, that all outside investment should cease in the country and and tourists should not give their money to the dictatorship by visiting Burma until democracy is established in that country.
The international community must do more to support democracy in Burma. It is not enough that the United States and the European Union are increasing sanctions against the regime there. Too many of Burma’s neighbors have argued that the best route to change in that country is through constructive engagement.
But the people who are living and struggling on a daily basis to bring democracy to Burma Suu Kyi and the democracy movement express no doubt about the need for continued and stepped up internal and international pressure to bring about change in the country. Burma’s neighbors, instead of increasingly engaging with the SPDC regime, should firmly support the democracy movement in the country – by both word and action.
It is Aung Sann Suu Kyi’s birthday on 19 June. When we met, we had discussed the hope that if the dialogue stalemate were broken and there was meaningful movement toward political change in the country, it would be possible for me to freely bring a group of women into the country to celebrate her birthday – and with her, a movement toward democracy in the country.
But on the eve of her birthday, the situation inside the country has gone from bad to worse. Words in support of political change in Burma are important – but concrete action to further the words is even more so.
It was the international isolation and economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa that helped the internal forces of that country force change and bring democracy to that nation. The international community – and particularly Burma’s neighbors -- must unite in applying effective pressure on the Burmese dictatorship politically and economically until it cedes power to those who earned it legitimately at the ballot box.