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    Aung San Suu Kyi's Release: A Bitter Sweet Moment

    Today the Burmese democracy icon, Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi was released by the Burmese military junta after more than seven years of house arrest. The news has been welcomed by countless people in Burma and around the world including many global leaders. 

    Thousands gathered outside her house when news started to circulate that she was likely to be released this weekend. This is not a small feat in Yangon (Rangoon) given how heavily her residence is guarded by the military, not to offer her protection but rather to keep people, mainly her followers, away from her. People fought with the police, defied orders, risked getting arrested to stand for hours outside her gate just to catch a glimpse of her. This is precisely why she has spent majority of the last two decades under house arrest.

    Mere mention of this 65-year-old, frail, petite woman makes the most brutal, heavily armed Burmese military generals shake in their boots (figuratively speaking). And that is why mentioning her name and supporting her is at best discouraged and at worst persecuted in Burma by these cowards. So severe is the media censorship that the Burmese novelists are not allowed to even use her name for fictional characters in novels.

    The military rulers are so afraid of her ability to sway the public and throw them out of power that the only thing they know to do with her to keep her influence contained is to lock her up repeatedly. That is why her party NLD (National League for Democracy) was disbanded and the fake elections were held last week - a week before her scheduled release this weekend by the military junta, just so that she could not participate in the elections. For all their military might, the generals don't have the guts to put her on an election ballot and contest a fair election against her. They know beyond a shadow of doubt that they'll never win against her if the playing field was even and they played by the rules. 

    Her release today even if it's a cause for celebration calls for guarded optimism at best. If past be the guide, more likely than not she will be arrested again under some pretext or the other. She was first put under house arrest on July 20, 1989 without any official charges or trial. While under house arrest her party won the national elections in a landslide (82% of parliamentary seats won by the NLD) in 1990. This house arrest lasted till July 10, 1995.

    The next four years were the longest in the last two decades that she was 'free'. But that so called 'freedom' came with such severe restrictions on her activities and movements within the country, imposed by the military rulers that it was actually just another version of the house arrest. In 2000 she was detained again and placed again under house arrest till December 2002. The release in 2002 lasted only a few months as she was back under house arrest in 2003 which lasted until today. During these long years spent in house arrests, it has been reported (and Ms Suu Kyi herself has acknowledged it later as being true) that her funds were so scarce that there were many times she could not even afford food and was on several occasions too weak (from malnutrition) to even get out of the bed. 

    The terms of today's release have not yet been disclosed. It's almost guaranteed that it is not likely to be an unconditional release granting her full freedom. Her movements will be restricted and very closely watched. An article published in The Economist today titled 'Aung San Suu Kyi's Release Into A Bigger Prison', points out poignantly: "Once again, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese opposition, is in theory at liberty. Her latest spell of house arrest ended on November 13th, when she came briefly out of her home in Yangon, where she had been detained, to greet a crowd of thousands of delighted supporters. In the past, such spells of freedom have been illusory. The junta has placed such strict limits on her activities that she has in effect simply been released into a larger prison."

    There are 2,002 other political prisoners still under arrest in Burma. Democracy and freedom seem even farther away from reality with the outcome of the staged elections held last week, which has confined power to the military. The political landscape in Burma is less than favorable (to put it mildly) for Ms Suu Kyu's aspirations for her country. Burma is one of the poorest nations in the world and with decades' of economic mismanagement by the military rulers, economic hardships are an everyday reality for millions. Marred with ethnic conflicts, economic problems, and a military rule that shows no signs of relenting, the country faces many challenges that unfortunately Ms Suu Kyi will have little power to tackle even as a 'free citizen'. Without political reform and an end to the military rule, her mere release from captivity does little to actually benefit the country. 

    But despite all those harsh realities, whatever the conditions of her release and however brief or long the duration, she is an eternal emblem of hope for her people. Her staunch adherence to the Gandhian principles of non-violence and civil disobedience (the founding principles of NLD), have earned her some criticism in the past. Some of her critics have argued that she should have compromised with the military dictators. But she stands firm on her unwavering quest for nothing but full freedom for the people of Burma. She is idealistic enough to believe in such values as democracy and freedom for all and realistic enough to know that the road ahead is long and perilous. 

    This is what she has to say about Burma's democracy movement, published in the book - 'The Voice of Hope', by Alan Clements:

    "We have faith in the power to change what needs to be changed but we are under no illusion that the transition from dictatorship to liberal democracy will be easy, or that democratic government will mean the end of all our problems. We know that our greatest challenges lie ahead of us and that our struggle to establish a stable, democratic society will continue beyond our life span. But we know that we are not alone. The cause of liberty, and justice finds sympathetic responses around the world. Thinking and feeling people everywhere, regardless of color or creed, understand the deeply rooted human need for a meaningful existence that goes beyond the mere gratification of material desires. Those fortunate enough to live in societies where they are entitled to full political rights can reach out to help their less fortunate brethren in other areas of our troubled planet."

    ~ Gauri

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