People love historical analogies, so it’s easy to think of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest on Saturday as Burma’s “Mandela moment.” When Nelson Mandela was freed from 27 years of imprisonment in 1990, it marked the start of a process that saw the negotiated end of the apartheid regime and genuinely free elections in only four years. Maybe that sort of thing will now happen in Burma too.
That would be nice, but it would be unwise to bet the farm on it. “The Lady,” as everybody in Burma calls her, has the same combination of saintly forbearance and tough political realism that enabled Nelson Mandela to lead the transition to democracy so successfully in South Africa, but her situation is very different.
Mandela emerged from prison to assume the leadership of a powerful, disciplined mass movement, whereas Suu Kyi must start by picking up the pieces of a party that has split and lost focus during her seven years of house arrest.
South Africa was utterly isolated politically, and its economy was crumbling under the impact of sanctions. The Burmese regime has diplomatic relations with its trading partners in Southeast Asia and a very powerful supporter in China. Burmese living standards are dramatically lower than those in neighboring countries due to 40 years of corrupt and incompetent military rule, but the economy is growing.
And the most important difference: when South Africa’s President F.W. de Klerk freed Mandela in 1990, he already knew that the apartheid regime was doomed. He wanted to negotiate a nonviolent transition to a democratic system that would preserve a place for South Africa’s white minority, and Mandela was the best negotiating partner he could hope for.
The regime that has just released Aung San Suu Kyi, by contrast, does not think it has lost, and a transition to a genuinely democratic system is the last thing on its mind. It has just finished an elaborate charade of elections (nine-tenths of the candidates were government-backed) under a new constitution (one-quarter of the parliamentary seats are reserved for the armed forces). It already has all the democracy it wants.
Their power really rests on their willingness, demonstrated again only three years ago, to kill unarmed civilian protesters in the streets. But they are as concerned about preserving the country’s independence as any other Burmese, and that makes it desirable to end Western sanctions against the regime. They are hugely dependent on China as an investor and a market for their raw materials, and that is not a comfortable position for any Burmese to be in.
If Aung Sang Suu Kyi can persuade the Western powers to end sanctions against Burma — and she has already hinted that she will help — then the regime can use better relations with the West to counterbalance China’s overweening influence in the country.
Obviously, the regime is betting that it can use “The Lady” in ending sanctions without risking its own hold on power, and perhaps it is right. She faces a hard task in rebuilding her party, which split over the question of whether to participate in the recent bogus election. Even if she succeeds, the generals can always arrest her again and lock her away for as many years as they like.
The citation for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize in 1991 called her a shining example of “the power of the powerless,” and that power is real. It could be seen in the adoring crowds who came out to see her when she was freed: After seven years of invisibility, her appeal to two generations of Burmese who have lived under the boots of the military regime all their lives is undimmed.
Like Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa, or Vaclav Havel in Communist Czechoslovakia, or Mohandas Gandhi in colonial India, she is a realist about power and fear. “People have been saying I know nothing of Burmese politics,” she said when she was first drawn into politics during the nonviolent protest movement of 1988. “The trouble is, I know too much.”
But she also knows that Mandela and Havel and Gandhi eventually won. They all had to accept that the guilty would go unpunished, for otherwise the outgoing regime would fight until the very last ditch. They also understood that negotiating with the enemy is necessary, and so does she.
Despite all that, those other heroes of nonviolence got what they were really struggling for in the end: a free and democratic country. And Aung San Suu Kyi could ultimately achieve that too, even though it is hard to see from here the precise route that might lead her to that goal.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.