Shinichi Asabe Article Collection

The People of Southeast Asia

Burma(Myanmer) Future of DemocratizationAugust 1995

The reason for “Aung San Suu Kyi’s release”

Released from house arrest,Aung San Suu Kyi is making a speech over the gate of her house.

On July 10th of this year, Aung San Suu Kyi (50), a former general secretary of the National League for Democracy (the NLD), was released from nearly six years’ house arrest. In August when I visited, except for the noise of hotel construction work an unearthly silence reigned in Rangoon, where the pro-democracy demonstration was held seven years ago.

Burma on the Brink

On the night of her release, the Japanese deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yohei Kono, promptly published a comment to the effect that it was a welcome step toward democratization and improvement of the human right status in Myanmar. Following the one-billion-yen aid offer of this March to increase production of food, Tokyo decided to render an free aid to the nurses’ training facilities within this year, and started to examine whether to resume its eight yen-credit projects which had been frozen since 1988, including the airport project, the irrigation project, the electric power distribution project and the communication project. Also some private enterprises announced their new business programs in Burma or joint enterprises with the military government one after another. For example, the Bank of Tokyo, Ltd. and the Fuji Bank, Ltd. announced the opening of their branch offices; Daiwa Shoken the setting up of a securities company; and Mitsui & Co., Ltd. a large-scale industrial park construction project and a Yadana offshore gas exploitation project with the total cost of 67 billion yen.

Japanese private companies started their investments later compared with those of ASEAN or Western countries, but Tokyo’s ODA, which accounted for 80 percent of the total bilateral aid before 1988, seems to dominate again because Washington treads warily regardless of pressure from the Republican Party.

Tokyo blows its own trumpet, claiming that the sun of “the assistance and talk” had an effect rather than the north wind of “the sanctions.” But a Burmese senior journalist, Sein Win (73) gave an account of her release as follows. 1) The military is absolutely confident that the citizens will never rise up against the military regime. 2) The government needs urgent economic development, because its revenue is estimated less than a billion dollars. 3) The military realized that it was discredit to make an amendment that is required in order to extend the term of Aung San Suu Kyi’s imprisonment. 4) There was outside pressure from aid- giving nations and trading partners. Outside pressure was ranked in the fourth place. Aung Tu, the secretary of the All Burma Student Democratic Front that was organized by student exiles of pro-democracy group, said at their hideout in Bangkok, “If the military is thinking of democratization seriously, it should release all the political criminals, permit political activities and dissolve the irresponsible National Assembly.” Actually, only about 90 out of the 392 NLD elective representatives participate in the National Assembly that the military government summoned, ignoring the result of the General Election. And there the draft of the constitution that guarantees the permanent authorities of the military will be finished this October.

Since political activities are still prohibited–even for women to wear a mini-skirt is prohibited in this country–the citizens lower their voices. A female college student (21) said that students surely wanted democratization but finding a job was a pressing issue for them, so they were afraid that a political activity might cause the college to be closed again. A dentist (27) said, “Campaigns for democratization are necessary because the country doesn’t get better, but I don’t want to be involved in politics.” An interpreter (25) said,”There is no censorship now, because all the publication is government-related. It’s nastier than before.” A general shop owner (46) said, “We have an awful lot to speak out, but we are all afraid of arrest. As to me, I have two children, so…” His voice was trembling as he spoke.

I had a secret meeting with an underground activist of a pro-democracy group who was released three months ago after five years’ imprisonment. There are still more than a hundred political criminals in prison, as far as he knows. According to him, the military tortures them in many brutal ways to unnerve the political criminals. For example, they are given only a glass of water in a day for the first five days in prison, thrown into a cesspool infested with maggots, given an electric shock, or have their eardrum ruptured with a matchstick. He added,”In contrast to former times, there was no one who supported my family during my imprisonment.” He was shocked to learn that there was no supporter in the country anymore. The pro-democracy movement seems to be going backward compared with what it was several years ago.


“My release doesn’t mean that the country is being democratized. Japan shouldn’t resume ODA in a hurry,” Aung San Suu Kyi expressed her opinion through a Japanese reporter. And she asked the Japanese Ambassador to Myanmar, Takashi Tajima, to be prudent in resuming ODA. At a press conference, when a foreign reporter put a question to her, “The citizens seems to appeal the government for the matters connected directly with living such as the increase of employment opportunities and the control of inflation more than for democratization…,”she retorted, “You said the citizens, who on earth did you ask? Frank opinions are not welcomed in this country. Which side is your interpreter on?” At the gathering in front of her house, she made a sarcastic remark on censorship, “Let me know your wishes by mail. I don’t care if somebody read it before me, as long as it reaches me. They (the military) will learn a little bit.” “A talk is the key to a quick solution of the problem,”she said just after she was released, but her tongue gets sharper and sharper. There seems no point of agreement between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military. Suu Kyi is appealing to the foreign governments and international public opinion, claiming that it is too early to resume assisting the government. On the other hand the military had kept silence after it released her, but broke it on September 8th and started criticizing her claim as silly and dangerous. The “talk” has not held yet.

The number of the people who come to listen to her speech is decreasing gradually.A lawyer (52), who is supporting the NLD, said with a concerned air,”People need the courage even to go there. If things go on like this, ironically all of the hearers may be foreigners in the end. Anticipating this, the military pays no attention to the criticism that hits home.” He also said, “She has already received a lot of support from the inside and outside of the country, and there are many supporters among the representatives. So she may take a step backward and back up the pro-democracy movement from behind, yet she is confronting the military directly like that. There is a chance of her being put under arrest again.”

Meanwhile Che Lein said,”She must be happy, but for the country I wonder whether it’s good or bad.” Che Lein is the former Foreign Minister during the Ne Win administration and even now an executive of the National Unification Party that supports the military government. He told disgustedly that she didn’t get mellow at all after six years, and that the privilege such as holding a gathering in front of her house shouldn’t be granted only to her. Taman, the former vice-delegate of the Unification Development Party that also belongs to the Establishment,argued that every country needs economic development before democratization and cannot jump it. Citing Germany and Japan in the end of the 19th century, he said that democracy was not brought about by grass-roots movement but was granted to the citizens by the government. These two people are supporting the military government for the reason of its introduction of the multi-party system and the market economy. But I think their main reason is that they set a high valuation on that only the National Army have been strongly united in all ages and prevented the collapse of the country since Burma became independent, while all the other political parties including the NLD split up before they could accomplish their purposes.


At the press conference held one month after her release, accompanied by the executives of the NLD who escaped arrest and attend the National Assembly, Aung San Suu Kyi put emphasis on their monolithic solidarity. “There is no difference among the executives’ opinions.” However, most of the representatives and the NLD members whose names were one-sidedly taken off the NLD member’s list by reason that they escaped to foreign countries haven’t returned to the NLD. And also the NLD has not made contact with most of illegal organizations within the country or sympathizers abroad.

Some pro-democracy organizations residing in foreign countries including Japan, America and Thailand have split in the past several years because of discord within the organization. The 15 forces out of 16 ethnic minority forces, which formed the Democratic Alliance of Burma under the slogan of support of the NLD and have fought with the military government, have already agreed on the ceasefire pact except the Karen National Union. The leader (67) of the Mon, which ceased fire at the end of this June, said that they wanted to band together with the NLD for the political settlement but the NLD hadn’t contacted them yet. The pro-democracy forces are divided and getting weak.


Nevertheless, the NLD is the only democratic group among the ten political parties that survives even after the general election. So the citizens hoping for democratization expect much from the NLD. The former chairman of the NLD, Tin Oo (68), who was placed in prison for five years and eight months on the ground that he supported the pro-democracy demonstration, revealed that they were prepared to compromise with the military government. He said,”We consider the result of the General Election held in 1990 as honors. We don’t insist that the new government should consist of only the elective representatives. Otherwise, we have to start all over again from scratch.”He was once a big-name politician and the former National Defense Ministry, and also worded as Ne Win’s right hand.

Tens of thousands of people were thrown into prison; talented persons have flowed out, seeking for safety and freedom; many countries applied economic sanctions. As a result, Burma cannot get out of the group of junior developing countries. Such dilemma may force the powerful figures of the NLD to compromise. If the things keep on like this, the new constitution that legalizes the military intervention at an “emergency” will be put into force, and transfer of authority to a civil government will be nominal.


I interviewed John Badgery, an Asian Politics specialist and the former professor in Cornell University, on August 23rd. He also served as a foreign policy adviser in the U.S government and is still influential. “We have a card that we will admit Myanmar to ASEAN, but they will never take that card. Her release was not the outcome of Japanese cancellation of debt, nor that of U.S Congress’s suspension of economic sanctions. It is important to save their faces and not to blame their youthful follies. We have to make a bargain over their pride and our financial superiority.”

He commented on the argument that economic development to form the middle classes is required before democratization, “In Burma there are many people who like reading, and the BBC or VOA (Western short waves)-listening population is remarkably large. There has been no chance to make their existence known except in 1988, but the’crypto-middle classes’ already exist.” He pointed out the difference between Burma and other developing countries.

And also he commented on the talk between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military, “The generals who killed a lot of people in the front line have started thinking what the good of their having done for the last 40 years is. They would like to have their children think that their fathers were great men who exerted themselves for the development of the country. The military officers who repent of that bloody incident are seeking a clue to an amicable settlement with the pro-democracy forces. They are so eager to settle the matter that they will even stoop to ask. I can’t tell when, but as the generals are very patriotic, they will surely find the clue within several months before IMF and the World Bank visit Burma. On the other hand, Suu Kyi will start putting emphasis on economy in her speech, though she always gives priority to the human rights over all others. She will advocate the human rights by appealing for the increase of employment, control of inflation and improvement of the educational and medical systems.” Badgery met with Aung San Suu Kyi in the middle of August. In fact, she made an appeal for the improvement of human rights from the financial aspect at the interview with the Japanese press on September 2nd. If the military officers who think that the economic development is urgently necessary agree on her this opinion, then the NLD having Suu Kyi again will remain a propulsive pro-democracy force in the future.

Badgery added, “She has decided to stay in her homeland and be a Burmese. It means that she will accumulate good deeds as a Buddhist. ‘Metta (mercy)’ in Burmese Buddhism is kindness common to both of her and the military people. I wish they could let bygones be bygones and find a point of agreement in Burmese way.”

Aung San Suu Kyi is the only person who can remonstrate in this country. If an ordinary citizen remonstrates, he/she would be placed under arrest, which the eyes of the world would never see. The Burmese citizens are practically put in a box with many needles sticking out toward the inside. Putting pressure on the military government is an obligation of the free nations like us, but in order to avoid the cases where people in that box are tortured, and their families feel sad and lose their means of livelihood, we should pay close attention to the way how to put pressure on it.

(Story & Photo by Shinichi ASABE)

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