The release of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in November was much bigger news than the national elections, despite these being the first in 20 years. Her freedom once again raised hopes for reforms in Myanmar, also known as Burma. The country has been under military rule since 1962.
Ever since her release, Aung San Suu Kyi has been very active, giving media interviews and meeting with members of her National League for Democracy (NLD), amid regional calls for her to play a greater role to bridge the gap between the military and the pro-democracy opposition.
Only a first step
While most people welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, some activists, such as Soe Aung of the Forum for Democracy in Burma, say it was just a partial step towards reforms and a dialogue. "You may call it progress on that front," Soe Aung told Deutsche Welle. "But do not forget about the remaining 2,200 political prisoners. There is no progress at all in their situation. Releasing Aung San Suu Kyi is not enough. The military regime has to respond to the calls of Aung San Suu Kyi for a dialogue as soon as possible."
The elections in November, widely considered by the international community as fraudulent, are expected now to be followed by the formation of a civilian government, which will include a president, and the appointment of regional administrators.
Debbie Stothardt, the spokesperson for the rights group Alternative ASEAN Network, is very cautious. "2011 is going to be more uncertain than 2010. We have Aung San Suu Kyi freed but we are not sure for how long, and there are increasing restrictions on people having access to her or media covering her statements and activities. We have also seen more foreigners blacklisted and deported from Burma since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release."
Minorities form alliance
Keunsai, who uses only one name, is the director of the Shan Herald news agency, which focuses on issues related to Myanmar's Shan ethnic minority group. He says the junta has a delicate balancing act ahead. "The junta is walking on tiptoes right now because it is anxious to show that the country has become a democracy. So what will happen next depends on both sides: how much the opposition is ready to test the junta's tolerance, and how much the junta is going to tolerate."
Myanmar’s ethnic minorities have also been under pressure this year, with the junta trying to press the minority armed groups to join a border patrol force. Over the past decades, the military has reached several cease-fire agreements with these regional armies. But brief clashes occurred in the state of Karen during November’s election, forcing hundreds of Karen to seek temporary shelter in Thailand.
Several of the armed groups have now moved to form a new military alliance. But Myanmar’s military has some 400,000 troops against the ethnic armies’ more than 65,000 troops.
Once again, Myanmar’s disparate communities are now putting their faith in Aung San Suu Kyi and hoping she will be able to negotiate a way to political reform.
Author: Ron Corben (Bangkok)
Editor: Anne Thomas