The release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma inevitably brings to mind the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa. Should we see this as Burma’s ‘Mandela Moment’ and a step on its long road to political freedom?
The overwhelming similarity found in examining the cases of Aung San and Nelson Mandela is the sense of how non-violent opposition may successfully threaten a powerful and oppressive regime. But as Mandela presciently noted, the road to freedom is a long and hard one.
Students of leadership will recognise the power of charisma at work. Both leaders project an overpowering sense of destiny and service to a higher ideal than that their own aspirations. They become icons and their influence is said to be idealized. For followers, they can do no wrong, a powerful responsibility to place on any human’s shoulders.
Political realities and chess playing
I have noted how political strategy has some things in common with a complex game of chess. The release of Aung San may be seen as a chess move by the military rulers in Burma. If we continue the chess-playing metaphor it follows their move a few weeks ago to hold elections. That move was widely dismissed as dubious gambit, offering a spurious promise of freedom. Tthe Generals will have assessed the situation subsequently. The gambit presumably was considered not to be working calling for another move.
The military regime which released Ms Suu Kyi is nonetheless confident it has control of the levers of power after the recent elections. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won and was founded by Thein Sein, who resigned as a general to become prime minister. The only credible opposition, Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was split by the poll. Elements of the party disagreed with her call to boycott the election and split off to form the National Democratic Force (NDF). But NDF leaders have said they would join forces with the NLD if Ms Suu Kyi was released. Her stated willingness to work with all democrats seems likely to heal any rift.
One of the greatest obstacles to Ms Suu Kyi – an ethnic Burman – building an effective opposition, inside or outside the system, could be the ethnic minorities that make up 40 per cent of Burma’s population. There is a widespread assumption across Burma that the military will take the opportunity, now that the elections are out of the way, to crackdown on the troublesome ethnic minorities. That might leave Ms Suu Kyi in an uncomfortable position as she tries to build bridges with the military regime yet not anger groups already antagonistic towards her.
Too direct a confrontation may produce yet another return to house arrest and her removal from direct political influence. Yet the power is not completely with the ruling Generals. To continue the chess metaphor, the release move was made not because the Generals wanted to do it at this moment in time. Rather it was a forced move, made because it had become the least-worse next step. It may well also be the first move towards an endgame promising a more democratic system in the country.