Saturday, November 20, 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi, a hero for all of us

We're with Barack Obama: Aung San Suu Kyi is one of our heroes, too. Her constancy, dignity, clarity, and almost superhuman restraint, all deployed through long lonely years in the quest for a better life for the people of Myanmar, have made her a beacon of hope in a land languishing under a shameless and cynical military junta.
Freed last weekend after spending seven years -and 15 of the last 21 -under house arrest, Suu Kyi picked up where she left off, calling calmly for peaceful debate, national reconciliation, and a tranquil transition to democratic institutions. In her way, however, she also speedily turned up the heat; giving a speech and meeting with ex-officials of her National League for Democracy, which last spring was outlawed by the regime. She is now reportedly seeking legal methods to revive the party.
Suu Kyi must know the risks she runs, and at age 65 her regained freedom is surely truly precious to her. A lesser person would have slipped out of the country, collected her Nobel Prize, and retired to enjoy the adulation of the whole world.
But prisoners of conscience are nothing if not stubborn. "I may be detained again," Suu Kyi told CNN. "I don't think about it ... I just do what I can do at the moment." No wonder Obama called her "a hero of mine."
What surprises us is that the generals who run the country let her out of jail. True, she had served her fixed sentence, but military dictatorships have no more regard for legal niceties than they do for electoral ones, and national elections last week, won by the generals' cronies and toadies, were certainly a sham.
Myanmar-watchers think the release was the generals' attempt to win a small measure of respectability around the world. If so, it won't work. A prisoner of conscience is a powerful symbol of a country in chains, but so is a released prisoner of conscience. As long as 2,100 or more other political prisoners remain in Myanmar's prisons, as long as a fraudulently-elected "government" does the generals' bidding, and as long as Suu Kyi keeps calling for reform, the generals will have no respectability. And they dare not lock her away again.