Aung San Suu Kyi faces 60th birthday under house arrest

This June 18 BBC account on Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s approaching 60th birthday provides a good brief overview of the recent escalating violence in Burma:

No happy returns for Suu Kyi
By Tony Cheng
BBC News, Bangkok

The woman simply known as “The Lady” will spend a lonely 60th birthday this Sunday, allowed only the company of two maids and a weekly visit from her doctor, as she enters her consecutive third year under house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s position as the world’s most celebrated political prisoner is not under threat, and the regular calls for her release from leaders across the globe have done little to ease her struggle.

Birthday greetings have already arrived from the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, fellow peace laureate Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, all calling for her immediate release from the detention that has seen her spend nine of the last 16 years in isolation.

But that looks far from likely as the generals who control Burma’s military government continue to evade external pressure for democratic change in the isolated South East Asian country.

There is also confusion about who is holding the reins of power, following the removal and arrest of former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in October 2004 and the detention of many of the military intelligence officers who were under his control.

Although Khin Nyunt was far from a liberalising influence in the hardline military junta, he had shown a willingness to engage in political dialogue, both with countries outside Burma, and with the diverse and disparate ethnic groups that have battled against the government for decades.

The result of that dialogue had been a series of ceasefire agreements between the government and armed groups that had been fighting against them.

While the majority of those agreements are still in place, several appear to have broken down, leading to increased fighting in several parts of the country.

The Karen National Union, the largest of the armed groups opposing the government, had never formally entered the ceasefire process, but had reached a “gentleman’s agreement” forged between Khin Nyunt and KNU leader Bo Mya.

According to Bo Mya’s son, Ner Dah Mya, a spokesman for the KNU, government troops in many areas of Karen State “are not respecting the verbal agreement.”

He is concerned that the government’s willingness to blame the KNU and other ethnic groups for bombings in the capital Rangoon that killed 23 people in May was a sign that hostilities might be on the verge of resumption.

“We’re in a time when everything is uncertain”, he said.

“The government is planning to do something, and while we are hoping for the best, we’re preparing for the worst”.

Danger in unity

Another group that had not included itself in the ceasefire, the Shan State Army, is currently involved in full scale battles with armies from neighbouring Wa state, whose troops are supported by the military junta.

And the fighting has forged alliances between the Shan State Army and other Shan groups that had signed ceasefire agreements which now seem worthless.

Although the conflict has been characterised as a struggle between two groups of bandits for control of the drug trafficking routes of the Golden Triangle, former Shan Prince and director of the Brussels based Europe-Burma Centre, Harn Yaunghwe, sees the hand of the junta pushing the Wa army.

“The Wa armies are concentrated in the north of Wa state, but the troops that are fighting the Shan have come down especially to do the government’s dirty work. I think the government has promised them control of the area if they can take it over,” he said.

All of this may seem very distant from the quiet residence on University Road in Rangoon where Aung San Suu Kyi will be spending her birthday.

But her most recent detention followed a tour of the country that had seen her receiving a rapturous reception among many of the ethnic groups that are so strongly opposed to the government.

Her father, Aung San, had been the man famed for uniting Burma after the British had employed a devastating “divide and rule” policy during the colonial era.

When his daughter returned to Burma it was hoped she might be able to emulate her father’s example.

And although she has never had the political office to do so, the signs suggested that her popularity was great enough to overcome the ethnic divisions that split Burma.

With the current rulers in Rangoon apparently reluctant to engage in a dialogue with the ethnic groups, “the Lady’s” capacity to unite the Burmese people makes her a very dangerous entity.

That will probably mean that the birthday appeals are likely to fall on deaf ears, and the chances of her spending much of her 60th year beyond the four walls of her house are slim indeed.