Burma’s November 7 elections — held under an undemocratic constitution in an atmosphere of repression and with the result crudely rigged — have been overshadowed by the release from house arrest of opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi on November 13.
Thousands of supporters lined the streets to her house and flocked to NLD offices to hear her speak.
Suu Kyi’s release has been compared to that of Nelson Mandela in 1990. However, unlike Mandela, Suu Kyi was not released from detention by a regime seeking negotiations.
Burma’s military junta is pushing ahead with its project — centred on the rigged elections — of giving itself a “civilian face ” without relinquishing its hold on power. The military have been in power since 1962.
The current junta have been in power since the previous dictator, Ne Win, was overthrown in a student-led popular uprising in 1988.
The military crushed the protests but allowed elections in 1990, which were won by the Suu Kyi-led NLD. However, the junta refused to hand over power.
It still holds more than 2100 political prisoners. Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 15 of the past 20 years. In 2007, protests over bus fare rises were joined by monks and escalated in to mass demonstrations for democracy. The protests were crushed by the military.
Undemocratic election rules, including a ban on political prisoners running for parliament, led the NLD to call for a boycott of the latest poll. The National Democratic Force (NDF), which split from the NLD, took part.
Due to vote rigging, the NDF and other opposition parties suffered a landslide defeat to the pro-junta Union Solidarity Development Party.
Speaking to 4000 supporters at the NLD headquarters on November 14, Suu Kyi called for freedom of speech, democracy, and for unity between opposition forces, the BBC reported.
She called on her supporters not to give up hope. “We must work together”, she said. “If we want change we have to do it ourselves.”
Speaking to the BBC on November 15, she described her aim as a “non-violent revolution”.
The NDF and another opposition group, the Democratic Party, welcomed her call for unity, the November 16 Wall Street Journal said. These parties will still take what seats they were able to win in parliament.
Despite her calls for democracy and change, she also called for national reconciliation and offered to negotiate with junta leader Senior General Than Shwe. “I think we will have to sort out our differences across the table, talking to each other, agreeing to disagree, or finding out why we disagree and trying to remove the sources of our disagreement”, she told the BBC on November 14.
The junta has not responded. The military has not attacked the crowds who have turned out to support Suu Kyi. But hopes that the junta’s project of adopting a “civilian face” will lead to greater freedom of speech and human rights are tenuous.
On November 17, Suu Kyi visited an HIV clinic in east Rangoon. The following day, the military closed the clinic down, the BBC reported on November 19.
After her release, Suu Kyi called for “a second multi-ethnic Panglong Conference”, the November 16 Bangkok Nation reported. The first Panglong Conference, in 1947, led to agreement between Burmese independence leader Aung San (Suu Kyi’s father) and the leaders of ethnic minorities that make up a third of the population for full autonomy for the ethnic minority regions.
Aung San was assassinated on the eve of independence in 1948 and the Panglong agreements were never implemented. As a result, there has been continuous warfare between the Burmese army and ethnic insurgencies ever since.
Beginning in 1989, the military reached ceasefires with 17 of the ethnic insurgent armies. The military ceded considerable parts of the country to de facto control by rebel groups in return for not threatening the power of the central government.
Some groups continued to fight, notably the Karen National Union (KNU) and Shan State Army-South.
However, those groups that signed the ceasefire have been alienated by junta attempts to convert them into an army-controlled Border Guards Force.
Fighting broke out in 2009 between government forces and ethnic Kokang rebels. The largest ceasefire group, the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA), prevented the recent elections from being held in its territory.
As tensions escalated, “the government … cancelled voting in 3,400 villages in ethnic areas, disenfranchising 1.5 million people”, Associated Press reported on November 2.
Lahpai Naw Din, editor of the Thailand-based Kachin News Group, told AP: “We had high hopes to solve the problems by political means but we could not. That’s why we Kachin people are preparing for an inevitable civil war. We have to defend ourselves.”
The November 4 Irrawaddy reported a meeting in Thailand of representatives of ceasefire groups and those still fighting to plan a united response to an expected government offensive.
“We don’t want war”, a UWSA official told Irrawaddy. “But we will react if one of our groups is attacked.”
Since the elections, the KNU has been joined in its fight against government forces by its rival, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which previously observed the ceasefire.
Leaders of ethnic groups, both those observing the ceasefire and those not, responded positively to Suu Kyi’s call for a second Panglong Conference, the November 15 Irrawaddy reported.
It is clear the democracy struggle has along way to go. Welcoming Suu Kyi’s release, Burma Campaign Australia warned on November 13 that her release “should not be interpreted as a sign that democratic reform is on the way. Burma Campaign Australia also called for the immediate release of 2100 political prisoners who remain in detention.”
Zetty Brake, Burma Campaign Australia’s spokesperson, said: “The release of Aung San Suu Kyi is about public relations, not democratic reform.”