If you want in, don't mention Suu Kyi


In military-ruled Burma, citizens must be prepared to spend years behind bars for discussing politically sensitive issues. For visiting dignitaries, the penalty is not quite as harsh, but the ban on talking politics is every bit as absolute.

During his recent visit to Burma, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was careful to respect the generals' reticence about any subject that touched upon their claims to legitimacy, lest he leave the country empty-handed.

This came as no surprise. After all, as political activists in Rangoon joked, Mr Ban was a "guest of the state" - like the thousands of political prisoners who have experienced the junta's hospitality over the past 20 years.

Of course, after weeks of being spurned by the regime's reclusive leader, Senior General Than Shwe, Mr Ban probably felt lucky just to have the chance to discuss the matter at hand: the devastation in the Irrawaddy delta, where hundreds of thousands of people were still at risk three weeks after Cyclone Nargis.

To get Gen Than Shwe to listen, Mr Ban knew that he and his team had to be careful to avoid one taboo topic in particular. If he had so much as mentioned the name of Aung San Suu Kyi in the presence of Gen Than Shwe or in front of a TV camera, last week's meeting in Naypyidaw would never have taken place.

Gen Than Shwe's personal dislike for the Nobel Peace laureate is an open secret. Foreign ambassadors who have met with the junta leader to give their credentials have been asked to leave after they uttered her name.

After a two-hour meeting with Burma's paramount leader, Mr Ban finally got the green light for "all aid workers", regardless of nationality, to be allowed to deliver aid to the delta region. But it remains to be seen if the regime will keep its promise.

Mr Ban had no choice but to express optimism. "I had a very good meeting with Senior General Than Shwe and particularly on the aid workers," he said with his characteristic mild-mannered smile.

Even after leaving Burma, Mr Ban was careful to stay on message. At a press conference in Bangkok, he was asked if the UN's position on the release of Daw Suu Kyi and other political prisoners had changed, given his silence on this issue. "I make it quite clear that the United Nations' position vis-a-vis the democratisation process of Burma remains unchanged," he replied.

He added: "I'm going to have my special envoy, Mr [Ibrahim] Gambari, continue his work as my special envoy to help facilitate the democratisation of Burma. I hope the Burmese authorities will keep their commitment to the seven-point democratisation process."

He went on to say that he would return to these issues "in the near future". At no point did he mention Daw Suu Kyi.

No doubt the UN chief was concerned that Gen Than Shwe's promise to allow international relief workers into the country could be abruptly reversed if the generals detected even a hint of political meddling. So, for now, Daw Suu Kyi and the issues she represents remain on the back burner.

But at Sunday's donors' meeting in Rangoon, where representatives of governments and aid organisations gathered to pledge assistance to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, Daw Suu Kyi was not far from people's minds, according to one Western ambassador who attended.

This was not due to a peculiar preoccupation with the well-being of Burma's most famous political prisoner. Ironically, it was the junta's fixation with her, and particularly its need to keep her out of the spotlight, which has once again forced the world to take notice of her.

At midnight on May 25, the day of the international pledging conference in Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi was due to be released from house arrest.

"In a tremendously significant coincidence of timing, she must be released by the end of the day on May 24," said Daw Suu Kyi's lawyer Jared Genser, who is also president of the Washington-based rights group Freedom Now.

Daw Suu Kyi has been under house arrest since May 2003, when junta-backed thugs went on a rampage in the central Burmese town of Depayin, killing many members of her entourage in an attack on their convoy during a tour of Upper Burma. She and other senior leaders of her party narrowly escaped with their lives.

Five years later, she is still under house arrest, after receiving a one-year sentence that has been extended every year since 2003. According to Burmese law, the regime cannot add another year to her sentence unless it brings new charges against her.

Of course, the release didn't happen. Instead the junta waited until yesterday to quietly extend her arrest for another year and, just as quietly, inform her of the fact.

Daw Suu Kyi is not just a skeleton in the junta's closet. Like Burmese everywhere, she is listening to the news about the humanitarian crisis in the delta, and sharing her compatriots' fears for those who have been stranded by an inept and indifferent regime.

Min Ko Naing, Su Su Nway and other prominent activists behind bars are also collecting the scraps of news that reach them through the visitors who are infrequently permitted to see them, or from sympathetic prison wardens. Like Daw Suu Kyi, they have probably heard of Gen Than Shwe's promise by now. And like her and everyone else who has heard it all before, they are probably quietly fighting feelings of despair for those they are powerless to help.

Burma's political prisoners know they aren't going anywhere soon, so they will no doubt forgive the international community for ignoring them at this time of crisis. But if the world allows the regime to sentence hundreds of thousands of Burmese to death by neglect, it will be a crime that even those who have learned to bear intense injustice will have trouble forgiving.

Aung Zaw is the editor of the Irrawaddy magazine.


Bangkok Post