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Burma’s Hope Imprisoned

by Ralph E. Luker on Jul 11, 2003

Ralph E. Luker

The detention of a private citizen in a Third World country would not ordinarily get much attention elsewhere. But when Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned on two weeks ago, world attention turned to the embattled hope for democracy in the impoverished southeast Asian country.

Americans may remember Burma because of the controversy over its name. In 1989, Burma’s military rulers appealed to nationalist sentiment by adopting the name “Myanmar” for their nation. It’s a name adapted from local usage, but it hasn’t won international recognition because the regime is an international outlaw in flagrant violation of human rights.

There was a time, in 1948, when Americans knew Burma as a newly independent British colony in southeast Asia, fully hopeful of joining the world community of free and independent nations. Burma is little known to us now because it fell under military rule shortly after independence and became isolated.

In 1990, Burma’s 40 million people could hope that the long delayed promise of freedom was theirs. In the nation’s first free elections in decades, they voted overwhelmingly for the National League for Democracy, whose leader few Americans had heard of: Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma’s military rulers reneged on the promise of free elections, however, and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. In 1991, her long struggle to bring freedom and democracy to Burma won the Nobel Prize.

In the intervening years, Burma’s hope for freedom has been embodied in that brave woman. Thinking that more than a decade of house arrest had ended Suu Kyi’s public appeal, the regime released her from detention in 2002.

Suu Kyi has long been an advocate of reconciliation. She and her followers have been willing partners in reconciliation discussions mediated by the United Nations special envoy, Razali Ismail. Yet Burma’s current military dictator, Than Shwe, has withdrawn from those discussions and steadily mounted state pressure on supporters of the National League for Democracy.

On May 30, supporters of Myanmar’s military regime attacked the convoy of Suu Kyi as she was on her way to rally her followers. They killed some of her supporters and imprisoned her and other followers, who joined in confinement about 1,400 other political prisoners held by the government. Last week, Myanmar’s military regime reluctantly allowed the U.N. envoy access to her.

Military dictators have now governed Burma for a half century. The regime has isolated Burma in the world of nations, has controlled its industries and has drained its economy. Once the wealthiest nation in southeast Asia, Burma’s $1,200 per capita annual income is now a fifth of that of neighboring Thailand, below that even of neighboring Bangladesh. Slavery is a common form of labor in Burma, so many western corporations will not accept goods made there for sale. Burma feeds only our illicit addiction to its opium.

The United Nations and the United States have limited influence with the government in Burma. U.N. and U. S. authorities have called for Suu Kyi’s release to no avail. As its closest trading partners, Japan, Singapore and Thailand have greater influence with Burma’s government, but they are reluctant to intervene in Burma’s internal affairs. Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to meet this month with leaders in southeast Asia and press the case for Suu Kyi’s release and progress toward democracy in Burma.

There is more that we can do to “keep hope alive” in southeast Asia. Republican Sens. William Frist, Richard Lugar and Mitch McConnell have joined with Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle and Diane Feinstein in support of economic sanctions against Burma. Democrat Tom Lantos and Republicans Henry Hyde and Peter King support the measure in the House of Representatives. Economic pressure could have some effect because Burma’s military rulers control and are sustained by its economy.

The State Department and the White House support these efforts to pressure Burma’s military rulers to release Suu Kyi. The United States must sustain the pressure for democracy in southeast Asia. If we hesitate, Burma’s long delayed hope of freedom could be lost for yet another generation.


Ralph E. Luker, an Atlanta historian, is co-editor of the first two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King and a writer for the History News Service.