Myanmar's political prisoner

May 29th 2007
From the Economist Intelligence Unit ViewsWire
The junta extends the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi

On May 25th Myanmar's military rulers extended for another year the
house arrest of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition leader, Aung
San Suu Kyi. Not only was the junta's move widely expected, but the
prospects for Aung San Suu Kyi's early release, or indeed for any
meaningful political reform, are perhaps slimmer than ever despite
continuing international condemnation. Though it is invariably hard to
tell with secretive Myanmar, this may be because the military regime
is itself at a delicate juncture given suspected internal concerns
over the stability of its ailing leadership. As the junta is also
thought nearly to have finished drafting principles for a new
constitution that would, under the guise of democracy, cement its grip
on power, it will seek to avoid potentially destabilising
actions—which the release of Aung San Suu Kyi would undoubtedly
constitute, in the generals' eyes—until its self-serving political
"reforms" are more advanced.

Aung San Suu Kyi's period of house arrest had been due to expire on
May 27th, which ironically was the 17th anniversary of the 1990
general election in which her party, the National League for Democracy
(NLD), won an overwhelming majority. That result, infamously, was
never recognised by the junta, which has continued to persecute Aung
San Suu Kyi and her supporters ever since. Indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi
now enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the world's most
famous political detainees. She was last released from house arrest in
May 2002. But the large crowds of supporters that she drew as she
travelled outside the city of Yangon for the first time in many years
alarmed the junta. The generals quickly ended the détente. In late May
2003 Aung San Suu Kyi's motorcade was attacked during a tour of the
north of the country, and a number of her supporters were killed or
injured. Aung San Suu Kyi was initially jailed, and was subsequently
placed back under house arrest in Yangon, where she remains.



This state of affairs is likely to continue. The junta's renewal of
Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest clearly shows its immediate intentions
regarding the NLD's leader, and military rule will almost certainly
remain as entrenched as ever. This does not mean, however, that the
political situation in the country will be one of total stasis.
Indeed, the junta's position towards Aung San Suu Kyi may have
hardened further in reaction to developments that could significantly
alter the political status quo—albeit to the exclusion of genuine
democratisation.

Reform, but not as we know it

The first of these developments is the junta's ongoing effort, partly
in response to international pressure, to push on with its "road map
to democracy". Despite the encouraging-sounding label, this process
will involve only token reforms that will not advance political
freedom significantly. The reform process so far has been
protracted--many critics of the regime see it as little more than a
stalling tactic in the face of international pressure. Moreover, even
if it is completed in a timely manner, with the eventual holding of
supposedly free and fair elections, the entire process has been
engineered to ensure that the military will retain a firm grip on
power. Officials have indicated that the National Convention, the body
set up by the junta to draft guidelines for a new constitution, will
complete the drafting process this year. This is only one of the first
steps on the road map, so further lengthy delays can be expected
before political reforms take effect, if at all.

In addition to ensuring that the military is constitutionally
guaranteed some direct role in any new political system, the generals
also appear to be introducing measures that will enable them
indirectly to control any future, ostensibly civilian, government.
Senior members of the junta may resign from their military posts at
some point in order to lead a new governing council or transitional
government. The junta's agenda is already visible in lower-level
personnel changes. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC, as
the junta is officially known) has been revamping local government by
placing pro-military personnel in key posts. In mid-February reports
emerged that more than 1,000 middle-ranking military officers had been
ordered to retire, with many being moved into local-government
administrative positions. This decision may have been intended to
ensure that the planned referendum on the constitution (which is
another, later, step on the road map) is passed without opposition,
although part of the reason for the move may be house-keeping within
the military. Myanmar's huge armed forces are rather top-heavy.
Succession issues

Another development that may be affecting decisions on political
reform is the emergence of the question of succession. The chairman of
the SPDC, Senior General Than Shwe, is reportedly in poor health. So
too are some other leading junta officials, most notably the prime
minister and fourth-ranked member of the SPDC hierarchy, General Soe
Win, who is believed to be suffering from leukaemia. In mid-May
reports emerged that Lieutenant-General Thein Sein, number five in the
hierarchy, had stepped in as acting prime minister.

The illness, incapacitation or death of key figures in the junta could
severely destabilise the SPDC. There is no effective mechanism for the
transfer of power among the top generals. Thus there is no certainty,
for example, as to who would succeed General Than Shwe. Given the
competing factions within the leadership hierarchy, this could result
in all sorts of internal tensions. The fact that the junta has a
history of purging senior leaders also suggests the transition may not
be smooth. (For example, a former number two in the SPDC, General Khin
Nyunt, was ousted in 2004, while former leader Ne Win ended his days
under house arrest.)
Whither democracy?

All of this is likely to make the junta doubly cautious about
permitting greater freedom of political expression, let alone
releasing Aung San Suu Kyi—not that it was likely to have countenanced
either move even in the absence of the above factors. International
pressure on the junta is mounting--earlier this month more than 50
former heads of state added their signatures to a letter to the junta
calling for Aung San Suu Kyi's release—but these efforts are likely to
remain ineffective. Among other problems, support for the regime from
China, Russia and some South-east Asian countries has hampered
international efforts to bring about change; this is likely to
continue.

Grassroots dissent appears to be increasing, albeit on a very small
scale. There have been a number of small public displays of opposition
to the junta and support for the NLD leader in recent months, most
notably by the "88 Generation", a group led by activists who were
involved in the 1988 pro-democracy protests. The junta initially made
a rare display of tolerance, but it is now cracking down on such
activists, sometimes violently. Although the momentum behind these
opposition campaigns is building despite the risks facing those taking
part, for now, sadly, it remains almost inconceivable that a movement
of popular dissent could unseat the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi is likely
to remain famous as a political prisoner for some time to come.