A famous hostage or a thorn inside Slorc?
The Nation, Thursday, February 17, 1994
Aung Zaw comments on US Congressman Bill Richardson meeting Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu is Sue for the Tatmadaw (armed forces) in Burma. In Burmese, Sue basically means a thorn. For Burma’s present regime known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council or Slorc, Aung San Suu Kyi is a big thorn in their boots.
Suu Kyi, 49, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the 1990 elections, has been under house arrest for almost five years. She is indeed the most prominent Burmese pro-democracy leader and has been described as “hope” for the struggling-to-be-free Burma.
On Monday, she met a US congressman, a Western journalist and a representative of UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Burma: They are the first outsiders she has seen in almost five years of house arrest. Her husband, British academic Michael Aris, and two sons have been allowed to see her since 1992. Their last visit was during Christmas in 1993.
Suu Kyi’s visitors on Monday were Bill Richardson, a Democrat from New Mexico; Philip Shenon, a journalist from The New York Times and Jehan Raheem from the UNDP office in Burma.
Richardson first visited Burma in August 1993 and had then requested the leaders of Slorc for a meeting with Suu Kyi. According to a source, Slorc told him they could arrange a future meeting with the detained leader. Suu Kyi also agreed to meet the US Congressman but under certain conditions. She wanted a UN official and an international journalist to be present at the meeting.
In November 1993, Professor Yozo Yokota, a UN human rights investigator visited Burma. Although he had submitted a list of political prisoners which included, Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he wanted to meet, he however was denied access to her.
According to a source, on Tuesday, Richardson visited Sun Kyi again just before coming to Bangkok, where he was due to hold a press conference.
Besides Suu Kyi, the US Congressman also visited Insein prison where a number of political prisoners are being held.
Still, little is known with regard to Congressman Richardson's commitment to Burma. According to a Bangkokbased American campaigning for Burma's pro-democracy movement, it is too early to tell whether the Congressman has an in-depth understanding of the country's problems.
“We only know he has made a few trips to Burma in the past. That’s all,” he said.
In 1993, Richardson was invited by Slorc to Burma to witness its drugburning shows. In August last year he and two other former Congressmen also visited Insein prison and this was criticized by certain quarters as a clear public relations exercise.
The American activist voiced fears that Slorc might have used the US congressman to ward off criticism from the Clinton administration on its human rights records.
The US administration is reviewing its Burma policy in the wake of several reports from international human rights bodies that a climate of fear is still prevalent in the country and hundreds of prisoners of conscience still remain under detention.
Because of the strong lobby from groups calling for sanctions and embargoes against the Slorc, the US Congress last week called on President Clinton to clearly state in his foreign policy, that the junta would not be recognized until it hands over power back to the people and releases all political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi.
On Dec 7, 1993, US undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Peter Tarnoff received Dr Sen Win, prime minister of the government-in-exile, the National Coalition Government of Union of Burma (NCGUB). He also happens to be a cousin of Suu Kyi.
“They [Slorc] may fear tough American action against them” said an analyst.
Moreover, the Slorc is aware of the forthcoming meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission at the end of the month and the Asean summit.
“Richardson’s arranged visit by Slorc could just have been a way of mitigating future criticism against them,” said a Rangoon-based diplomat.
“More such visits could be allowed,” he added.
Nevertheless, many see the granting of the US Congressman's request to visit Suu Kyi as surprise move by the ruling military junta. Some even considered it as positive step taken by Slorc.
For instance Australia's Foreign Minister Gareth Evans said: “The visit is a positive one and a welcomed first towards what we hope will be wider dialogue on the issue confronting Burma including the process of national reconciliation and improvement of human rights.”
What clearly was missing from Evan’s statement was the fact that no concern whatsoever was expressed for Suu Kyi and no demands were made to free her.
This is indeed sad.
The question now for Slorc is quite simple. What are they going to do with Suu Kyi? Obviously, they cannot just shrug their shoulders and say “we don't know.”
The simplest thing for the military junta now is to continue detaining her according to whatever law perpetrated by Slorc. Another option is to force her to leave Burma.
Shortly after the meeting between the, foreign visitors and Suu Kyi, Slorc announced that the Nobel Laureate would be further detained until 1995. Indeed no one can deny that the generals in Burma are at their wits' end over what to do with Suu Kyi.
A Rangoon-based observer says Slorc’s dilemma is that while they have silenced Suu Kyi, they still face a credibility problem.
“The junta has tried very hard to convince the Burmese people that they are the only bosses in the country. Unfortunately, no one believes them,” he said.
Despite some small economic improvements to those connected to the regime, popular opposition to the junta remains just below the surface. If Suu Kyi was released before the junta has firm control over the new Constitution and a military-dominated government, she would automatically become a focus for that opposition.
This article appeared in The Nation, Thursday, February 17, 1994.