Snap Analysis: Myanmar Suu Kyi freed, but future uncertain

By Martin Petty

BANGKOK (BestGrowthStock) – The figurehead of Myanmar’s fight against dictatorship, Aung San Suu Kyi, was freed from house arrest on Saturday, a move seen an attempt by the military junta to gain some credit for its much-criticized political process.

The release of the Nobel Peace Prize winner will be welcomed by the international community and could be the first step toward a relaxing of Western sanctions on the regime because of its atrocious human rights record.

But the 65-year-old pro-democracy leader faces an uncertain future in a changing political landscape in which loyal comrades have defied her by courting public support and participating in last Sunday’s election, which Suu Kyi’s allies have long rejected.

Below are key issues relating to her release.

* Although Suu Kyi’s freedom has long been a demand of the international community, it is unlikely to lead to any near-term easing of sanctions, especially while an estimated 2,100 other political prisoners remain in detention.

Western governments have welcomed her release but will probably wait for the new military-dominated political system to take shape before reviewing embargoes. They know Suu Kyi has been released and re-arrested before and there’s nothing to suggest this won’t happen again.

Immediately after her release, several governments urged Myanmar to free more political prisoners.

* Her release is almost certain to sharpen the sanctions debate behind the scenes. Some U.S. and European investors are keen to tap into Myanmar’s vast resources, including rich natural gas reserves. Myanmar’s neighbors, Thailand, China and India, are already snapping up contracts.

Some senators in Washington also warn that Myanmar will fortify its political and economic ties with China if the United States continues to ostracize the regime. It might decide a re-think of its policy is in order.

* It is not known if Suu Kyi will continue her role as de facto leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy campaign. Few doubt she will fade from the scene, but by staying involved she will remain on a collision course with the powerful generals. Her first comment when emerging from her home on Saturday was a call for unity, adding: “only then can we achieve our goal.”

* The pro-democracy camp is now divided between an old clique who are rebelling against the new system and progressives who believe a tiny role in a flawed process is better than decades longer on the sidelines. If Suu Kyi retains her political role, she might have more than the military to contend with.

* Freeing her is a double-edged sword for the generals: while it could earn them some credibility after an election tainted by widespread fraud allegations, it could easily steal domestic attention away from a political transition the junta has struggled to sell to its skeptical people. In the eyes of the power-hungry generals, Suu Kyi is still a threat.

* Suu Kyi rarely cooperates with the regime and has gained notoriety for her provocative and rousing speeches that won her the hearts of the public but have contributed to her long periods of incarceration.

It is possible she will agitate them again, and there is a chance the junta will cook up another dubious reason to confine her to her home. While she remains free, the military is likely to follow her every move and wait for her to slip up.

* Myanmar’s people tolerated an election in which they did not really believe, but some robust rhetoric from the charismatic Suu Kyi and her party might be enough to spark some kind of mass protest against a political process that will entrench military rule and continue to deny the people freedoms and economic development.

The regime has spent years carefully plotting a water-tight transfer of power that bears some resemblance to democracy and is supported by its allies. It will use all means possible to uphold this and in Myanmar, that could mean brutal suppression of dissent. It has happened several times before and each time, the military prevailed.

* Although unlikely, there is an outside chance of a power grab by another faction inside Myanmar’s massive military. Resentment could be simmering, especially since many generals were overlooked for promotion in a recent reshuffle and forcibly retired by junta strongman Than Shwe.

Former soldiers among the National Unity Party may also have an axe to grind. Many have attributed their thrashing in Sunday’s election to cheating by their opponents in the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

(Editing by Jason Szep)

Snap Analysis: Myanmar Suu Kyi freed, but future uncertain