Aung San Suu Kyi & Birtukan Mideksa’s release brings smile on faces and hearts of people—but no one falls for the dupery despots have in mind in so doing- By Genet Mersha
On November 7, Myanmar held national election, after twenty years of military rule. Quoting a senior party official, Reuters reported that the Union for Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has taken as many as 80 percent of the available seats for parliament. News sources report that the USDP is a party stacked with recently retired generals and closely aligned with General Than Shwe, the military leader. Therefore, the electoral ‘competition’ behind it and bombarded by the torrent of rejections from around the world, a week later the junta released the 65-year old Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the most revered figure in that unfortunate country and an international icon.
This is seen as an attempt to seek international acceptance and lifting of the biting sanctions by giving a semblance of possible transition to democracy. Nonetheless, the election has already been rejected by all democratic countries and peoples around the world. There are two main reasons for that. Firstly, the junta’s disbanded the largest pro-democracy party, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). Secondly, in its election laws the junta decreed that pro-democracy figures would be banned because of convictions linked to her political activities. This resulted in the exclusion of the experienced NLD leadership from participation in the election. The party was given the option to take part in the election only if it expelled Suu Kyi from the party, which it refused on grounds of principle.
It seems that the military junta calculated this would create division within the NLD. They anticipated that a fragmented party would be incapable of any opposition activities. Most of the NLD members listened to their leader and decided not to take part in the election. For its refusal on both counts, the junta forcibly disbanded the NLD. A faction in the NLD, mostly consisting of the young, was convinced it would make a difference for democracy’s future in Myanmar by taking part in the election and getting parliamentary representation.
Certainly, their move was based on wrong assumptions. Under Myanmar’s new constitution, 25 percent of seats in all chambers are reserved for the military. According to news sources, the USDP is led by former junta officials who have only in recent weeks given up their military rank to run as civilians. The National Unity Party (NUP) is led by a former deputy leader of the armed forces. Such an arrangement, it is reported, would give the junta a parliamentary majority of more than 75 percent. In addition, three key ministerial posts – interior, defense and border affairs would be held by the generals running Myanmar. It has also become evident to opposition parties that participated in the election that they have been duped. They have already “accused the military junta of fraud and said many state workers had been forced to support the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in advance balloting ahead of Sunday” (MSNBC).
In the circumstances, the best hope for Myanmar still rests with Aung San Suu Kyi, although the environment she would be operating is more difficult than before. Notwithstanding that she told the thousands that thronged during the night cheering her release and tearing with joy: “I’m very happy to see you all again.” To the junta, she told them what they dread most: “They have treated me well on a personal basis. But they have not acted in accordance with the rule [of law]. And that I shall always fight against…The people cannot have security unless there is rule of law. And I believe my treatment and that of all prisoners is not within the norms of justice, but that does not mean that I have been ill treated personally” (CNN).
Regarding the election, she said, “I don’t think any country can survive as a prosperous and dignified nation unless there is rule of law.” Moreover, Suu Kyi is reported to have said the “basis of democratic freedom is freedom of speech” and urged supporters to “stand up for what is right.” She said “I’m not fearful, not in the sense that I think to myself that I won’t do this or I won’t do that because they’ll put me under arrest again. That I don’t have in mind” (BBC). In a BBC telephone interview she also said she did not fear re-arrest if she continued to call for democracy, though she knew it remained a possibility.
To the credit of the generals, the junta did not try to humiliate her either by announcing any fabricated apologies or setting terms and conditions for her release, as Ethiopia did in the case of the respected opposition UDJ party president Judge Birtukan Mideksa. Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer Nyan Win told journalists “This is an unconditional release. No restrictions are placed on her” (MSNBC).
In the case of Birtukan Mideksa, she was released from prison on 6 October 2010, after serving over two years of her life sentence. The government went extra length to make her release as if initiated with her apology. It announced her release from prison about five months after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s TPLF-led EPRDF won 99.6 percent of parliamentary seats. She was coerced into signing a letter of apology to the prime minister that in part states “I apologize for deceiving the Ethiopian people and government. I will not involve myself in such deceptive acts in the future” (Reuters). On 22 September 2010, a government official told the media of her release saying, “There was no bargaining. This is purely a magnanimous act by the government” (Eskinder Nega, www.andinet.com).
Nevertheless, to the extent I can understand her legal and political mind, I would be hard pressed to believe she would write of her own free will in her apology letter the following sentences. The language is typically Meles’s that he had employed from time to time in his press conferences, accusing her of such things. Here is that part:
When I was on duty abroad, I falsely told my supporters that government released me the first time around without me asking any apology, which on my part was false information. Because of that, when the authorities asked me to correct that mistaken information, instead I committed another mistake of not responding to that request appropriately. The reason for that is my mistaken belief that the government would not dare arrest me for fear of foreign pressure; or even if it did it would free me without delay (unofficial translation).
In this connection, recall that Reuters on its blog of 16 June 2009 wrote “Now, a year into her detention, Meles seems reluctant even to speak her name, preferring to call her “the lady” or “that woman”. When he finally did say the word Birtukan last week at a news conference, he couldn’t have been clearer about her future. There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” Recall also that the prime minister had told a press conference, “there is zero chance that opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa will be released from prison in time to compete in the elections scheduled for next May . He also said Birtukan’s jailing is not a pretext to eliminate political opposition” (Bloomberg, 22 June).
Recently Eskinder Nega wrote (after the election), Prime Minister Meles Zenawi “spoke about her harshly, but noticeably absent the typical ardor: “This (her release) is a purely legal issue, and it is between her and the law. No one can come between the two. Not opposition parties, not our friends abroad.”
Interestingly, like Mynamar’s the May 2010 election was rejected by election observers, outlining a list of several failures. In its conclusion the EU Election Observer Mission report states, “The electoral process fell short of international commitments for elections regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties.” In its damning report, Human Rights Watch wrote, “Although the ruling party introduced multiparty elections soon after it came to power in 1991, opposition political parties have faced serious obstruction to their efforts to establish offices, organize, and campaign in national and local elections.”
Certainly, the fate of Judge Birtukan is already sealed. Meles must be clear in his mind that he would only bid his time for another round of imprisonment. In his response to a question about her fate at his recent visit to Columbia University, before her release he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if she were to ask for a pardon. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the government was to grant it to her.” Is it that not troubling how much power a single man wields in our country, with the law having no powers to protect citizens or restrain an angry, moody, mercurial personality in power? God save Ethiopia!