It was one of those rare occasions when the media reported that something hadn’t happened. Recently, there was growing optimism that the world’s most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, would be released from house arrest. Such hopes were dashed when the military announced that her detention order had been renewed, yet again.
Ever since she was first detained in July 1989, the world has been fascinated by the stand-off between a determined, articulate Nobel laureate and the ruthless generals running Myanmar (formerly Burma).
It appears that a rare alignment of events had aroused foreign media interest and fuelled Rangoon’s fast-breeder rumour mill. There was the expiry of her detention order, increased diplomatic pressure from ASEAN, a direct appeal by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan for Suu Kyi’s release, and most surprisingly, permission for UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari to meet with her.
Cynical foreign observers, not to mention most Burmese people, will caution against casual optimism that Senior General Than Shwe will have a “change of heart” and release Suu Kyi. In the past, the junta has skillfully deflected diplomatic pressure on the regime by releasing political prisoners, only to imprison them again at a later date. On this occasion gestures of goodwill have more to do with assuaging the UN and occupying media attention at a critical time, just as the army launches fresh offensives against ethnic Karen guerillas on the border with Thailand.
Of course, if the State Peace and Development Council (the ruling junta) did release “The Lady” from detention, the news would be greeted with approval and relief by many. This may even be so among the ASEAN nations, where some members are growing increasingly embarrassed by the international pariah in their ranks.
Unfortunately, any decision to eventually release Suu Kyi should not be mistaken as a sign of weakness or compassion on the part of the junta. Nor would it necessarily signal preparedness on their part to enter meaningful dialogue with the main civilian opposition party, the National League for Democracy.
Instead, it would indicate that the SPDC was confident enough to proceed with the next step in its self-proclaimed “Seven Point Roadmap” for the creation of a pseudo-democratic system with the armed forces as the core institution.
It is important to remember that Myanmar has the distinction of being ruled by the world’s most enduring military regime. Throughout 1980s and 1990s, the armed forces in neighbouring Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, as well as Argentina and the rest of Latin America, have withdrawn from the complex and difficult business of directly managing a modern economy and returned to barracks.
In contrast, the Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw, have ruled the country in various incarnations since 1962. They remain firmly entrenched in office, despite decades of ethnic and communist insurgencies, diplomatic isolation, international sanctions, their disastrous mismanagement of a once-productive economy and alarming increases in narcotics trafficking, HIV infection and other social problems.
How can this be? There are many factors contributing to the persistence of military rule. Most of them are not unique to Myanmar, although their combination in a single country is quite rare.
In common with many other military regimes, the SPDC has used brutal repression of any sign of dissent. But this alone does not explain how Tatmadaw Government has outlasted others using the same methods.
One explanation is that, relative to the civil society it aims to control, the Tatmadaw is larger, more battle-hardened and its members are more imbued with a sense of national purpose than their counterparts in, say, Thailand or Argentina. This is partly a result of decades of fighting multiple, simultaneous insurgencies by communist and ethnic guerrilla armies in the mountainous border regions. The ruling junta has fashioned its own ideology, which portrays the armed forces as the nation’s indispensable institution, responsible for restoring and upholding the unity of the state and Myanmar’s independence.