CHIANG MAI—The world needs to hear from Aung San Suu Kyi—even if it’s just a three-minute statement.
In the wake of the recent army crackdown, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad has urged that detained opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi be allowed to talk to the U.N. Security Council.
Undoubtedly, the Oxford-educated daughter of Burma’s national independence hero Aung San would deliver a powerful speech. The world needs to know where she stands following the regime’s bloody response to the September demonstrations. But the question remains: Is this opportunity to address the world realistic?
I was recently told that Suu Kyi, 62, was distressed to learn about the deaths and brutal crackdown on monks. U Ohbasara, one of the monks who led the peaceful march to Suu Kyi’s house, told The Irrawaddy over the phone last week that she had asked the monks to carry on their peaceful march. “She was in tears,” the monk said. “She told us she wanted to enjoy freedom.”
When U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari visited Rangoon at the height of the crisis, she met him twice but there was no public statement from her. During her first term of house arrest, from 1989 to 1995, Suu Kyi managed to send out occasional messages to the outside world through U.N. envoys, visiting U.S. congressman Bill Richardson and her late husband Dr. Michael Aris.
Over the last four years, however, there has been little news from Suu Kyi, let alone any indication of where she stands vis-à-vis this ongoing political stalemate. In March 2004, a diplomatic source disclosed that she had sent a personal letter to Than Shwe, proposing a dialogue. It could have been a sign that Suu Kyi was ready to forgive what had happened in Depayin the year before, when government thugs attacked her convoy, killing some of her supporters.
Despite the occasional signals emerging from her sealed-off Rangoon home – and the rumors and speculation about her state of mind, health and political stance – the regime has been able to cut her off from the outside world while stepping up its diplomatic offensive. With her aging “uncles” now in ineffective control of the National League for Democracy, the need to hear from Suu Kyi remains vital.
Suu Kyi, the politician, may not be perfect or shrewd enough to deal with the manipulative generals, but she remains a beacon of hope in Burma.
Among the latest rumors surrounding Suu Kyi was a report that a black sedan had driven up University Avenue and had taken her to meet some high-ranking officials. Rumor has it that Thura Shwe Mann, the regime’s number three, wanted to meet her to sound out her views and had asked his aides to take her to a government building. But without Than Shwe’s blessing, Shwe Mann won’t dare meet her.
Last week, Suu Kyi was taken out of her house for a meeting with Labour Minister Aung Kyi, who was recently appointed as “liaison minister.” No details of the hour-long meeting have been released, although images were broadcast on state television – a rarity in a country where Suu Kyi spent years out of the public eye. Suu Kyi gave a pensive and worn-out impression, but her captor looked normal and attentively engaged the camera.
We’re used to this staged drama. Since the first meeting between Than Shwe and Suu Kyi in 1994, the regime has released photographs and video footage of rare meetings between the generals and her, but there has never been any accompanying sound. The images raised false hopes and speculation among critics and apologists alike, but we all realized that was part of the game.
The hands of Than Shwe, the former psychological warfare officer, could be seen in this diplomatic offensive. He is not giving up, and is as determined as ever to launch domestic and international diplomatic offensives from his dusty Naypyidaw. With the release of film material on the meeting between Suu Kyi and Aung Kyi, Than Shwe might be trying to buy more time and more breathing space. He wants his allies and friends to welcome the meeting and issue encouraging statements.
Just after the crackdown, some Western diplomats and sources in Rangoon told me that Suu Kyi no longer wanted to participate in party politics, but would be happy to be a figurehead and a force for national reconciliation. No one would confirm that these ideas emanated directly from Suu Kyi, however.
“It would be terrific for her to be in circumstances to come to the United Nations and to address the Security Council or other organs of this state,” Khalilzad said. “We would like for her to be released, we would like for her to be able to be in circumstances that she can consult with her party members, with her leadership of the political movement, with experts, to be unencumbered and able to travel.”
The generals would certainly be delighted to allow her to leave the country, for then they would be able to bar her from returning. When her husband died in 1999, they asked her to leave but hinted that they would not let her back in. Suu Kyi declined to leave the country for fear that she would never be allowed to return.
However, it is not a bad idea to propose hearing from her at this time of political crisis. This is surely something that U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari could arrange on his next visit to Burma, planned for later this week. It is crucial that we all hear her voice and learn where she stands.