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.”