For 24 hours, the world, and Burma’s people, were kept waiting. Every hour the media went through a tantalising “Will she? Won’t she?” cycle of analysis, commentary and speculation. Rumour abounded. Thousands of her supporters, young and old, gathered around the offices of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and near her home in University Avenue. Then finally, the moment we had all been awaiting – the world’s most famous political prisoner stepped out from her home. Unsurpisingly, even she could not silence the waiting crowd.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is as visually momentous as Nelson Mandela’s walk out of prison in South Africa twenty years ago. There is, however, one key difference. Mandela was released because F.W. de Klerk knew that apartheid was unsustainable. He worked in partnership with Mandela to transition South Africa to freedom, and Mandela’s release was part of that process.
In Burma, there is no F.W. de Klerk, and no Mikhail Gorbachev. If the Generals have their way, there will be no change. Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed not because Senior General Than Shwe, Burma’s dictator, has compassion, but as a public relations fig leaf to divert attention from last weekend’s sham elections, brutal offensives against Burma’s ethnic groups and the regime’s crimes against humanity.
So while Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is certainly welcome, and will have a profound impact on her people regardless of the regime’s intentions, we must be careful not to see it as a sign of change. When she was last released in 2002, Aung San Suu Kyi herself made this point: “My release should not be looked at as a major breakthrough for democracy. For all people in Burma to enjoy basic freedom – that would be the major breakthrough.”
There must be an end to attacks on ethnic civilians, particularly the Karen, whose plight has been highlighted at Conservative Party conferences by Zoya Phan. Since 1996, more than 3,500 villages in eastern Burma alone have been destroyed, rape is used as a weapon of war, forced labour and torture are widespread and systematic, and Burma has one of the highest numbers of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world. Ethnic villagers, including the elderly, women and children, are shot on sight. In other parts of the country, particularly Chin, Arakan and Kachin states in western and northern Burma, religious persecution of Christians and Muslims is a policy alongside rape and forced labour. So only when these crimes stop and all the people of Burma, regardless of ethnicity and religion, are assured equal rights and real peace can we talk of progress.
The regime is taking a risk in releasing Aung San Suu Kyi today, but pressure must be increased on the regime to take the opportunity that goes with it. A meaningful dialogue between the regime, the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and genuine representatives of the ethnic nationalities, should begin, to chart a peaceful transition to federal democracy.
Dialogue is the one policy which unites everyone. The UN Security Council, General Assembly, Human Rights Council and Secretary-General, the European Union, the United States, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and even China have called for dialogue. Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic nationalities have both indicated their readiness to talk – indeed, dialogue and national reconciliation are at the centre of their political platform.
To get there, the international community must step up its efforts. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release should be welcomed, and the regime should be left in no doubt that if it does meet the benchmarks of change set out above, pressure can be eased. But until those meaningful signs of change are seen, targeted sanctions must remain in place and if the situation deteriorates, those targeted sanctions should be tightened. Sanctions should be used strategically, linked to the situation on the ground and tightened or eased incrementally according to developments.
There are two steps the UN should take. In regard to Burma’s crimes against humanity, a Commission of Inquiry should be established to investigate the violations, as recommended by the UN’s own Special Rapporteur and supported by at least 13 countries, including the UK. And to promote dialogue, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must lead a revived UN effort to engage the regime and facilitate talks, using all the resources available to him.
At Prime Minister’s Questions a few months ago, David Cameron spoke passionately about Aung San Suu Kyi and the situation in Burma:
When I was in India I raised the issue of Burma with the Indian Government, because I think it is important that we talk to the neighbouring states of those countries and make sure that they are campaigning in the same way. ... we should be absolutely clear that the situation in Burma is an affront to humanity. Aung San Suu Kyi's continued detention is an outrage. She has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest, and her example is deeply inspiring. All of us like to think that we give up something for democracy and politics; we do not. Compared with those people, we do nothing. They are an inspiration right across the world, and we should stand with them.
He has repeated his respect for her today, describing her as an "inspiration" and saying her release was long overdue. Now she has been released, she is in a position to provide new inspiration right across the world. We must listen to her, and stand with her and her people.