Suu Kyi is free for now but Gen Than Shwe is watching

Nov 14, 2010
Edward Loxton

She has received a welter of foreign invitations - but will she dare leave Burma?

Although she is free after a total of 15 years of house arrest, Burma's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi now walks through a political minefield where one false step could find her back in detention.

She told thousands of jubilant supporters at a midday rally in Rangoon today (pictured above) not to "lose heart" and claimed she bore no grudge against her captors - "They treated me well. I only wish they treated the people in the same way."

But her nemesis, Burmese junta leader Senior General Than Shwe, has proved to be a wily master of her fate and will be following her every movement now, ready to fabricate a reason to lock her up once more.

The term of house arrest that finished yesterday began in May 2003, when she was taken into "protective custody" after pro-regime thugs - members of the movement that is now Burma's majority party in the newly-elected parliament - attacked her convoy of supporters in central Burma. Suu Kyi narrowly escaped with her life, but several of her comrades died.

The memory of that incident now revives fears that she could become a target for assassination, and although (and perhaps because) the military regime is providing her with maximum security, her supporters are nervous about letting her out of their sight.

They recall that Suu Kyi's father, General Aung San, leader of Burma's interim government that prepared for independence from Britain, died in a hail of assassins' bullets on July 19, 1947. Burma became independent one year later.

Aung San was one of the architects of the 1947 Panglong Agreement that led to independence and the formation of a Union of Burma. The Panglong Agreement attempted to integrate Burma's many ethnic groups into a federation that they believed was dominated by the powerful Burman majority.

Those beliefs are still strong today and are partly the cause of the continuing hostilities between ethnic armed forces and the Burmese Army which broke out in Karen, Shan and Mon border states as the polls closed in last Sunday's election.

Suu Kyi has made it clear that one of her first priorities will be to attempt a reconciliation between all the disparate elements that make up Burma, including the ethnic groups now fighting the Burma Army. One of these, the Karen National Union, has been at war with the central government since 1947 and is likely to prove Suu Kyi's greatest challenge.

She has suggested calling a new national conference along the lines of the original Panglong Conference - and told today's rally that she was "ready to work with all democratic forces" - but she'll have to convince Burma's new military-backed government that this is a practical proposal.

Her first priority, however, is closer to home. She faces the difficult task of bringing together the two factions of her National League for Democracy (NLD) that broke apart because of fundamental differences in their approach to the November 7 election.

Suu Kyi and a group of party veterans decided not to register the NLD for the election. While stopping short of calling for a boycott, they reminded supporters that they had a right not to vote.

However, one section of her party, mostly younger members, disagreed with the decision and formed a new party to fight the election - the National Democratic Force. The party fielded only a few candidates and won just a small handful of seats.

By failing to register for the election, the NLD also ceased officially to exist. So Suu Kyi now finds herself head of a party that the post-election government doesn't recognise. Sorting out that dilemma will be just one of the many intractable problems she faces.

Another difficult decision is whether to apply for a passport and to travel abroad in response to the invitations that are now filling the daily postbag at her lakeside Rangoon home. During previous brief periods of freedom, Suu Kyi refused to leave Burma - even for the funeral of her British husband, Michael Aris - for fear the junta would not let her return.

The decision she makes here will be a barometer test of the relationship she expects to develop with Burma's new government. She is justifiably suspicious of the country's new rulers, but she will have to rely more on trust than instinct now if she hopes to achieve her goal of national reconciliation.

Edward Loxton is reporting for The First Post from neighbouring Thailand.

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