In all the excitement at Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, too little attention has been paid to the question of why the junta let her out of house arrest. Regime officials say that she had come to the end of her term and so, by law, they could not hold her any more. But that explanation won’t do: in Burma, the ‘law’ is whatever the junta says it is, and the regime has on numerous occasions over the past twenty years come up with new trumped-up charges to keep Suu Kyi locked up.
Some observers have suggested that the junta, overconfident after the rigged elections, has made a major mistake in releasing Suu Kyi. She’s enormously popular in Burma, and were she to travel the country again would undoubtedly draw crowds in the tens of thousands, as she did the last time she was free, nearly ten years ago.
But I don’t think the regime miscalculated. For all its isolation, xenophobia and sometimes bizarre behaviour, the Burmese junta has proved itself a survivor. It’s going to use Suu Kyi, as it often has before, for its own purposes. Her release has, for one, diverted much of the world’s attention from the rigged election, which has solidified the junta’s rule and passed down power to a new generation of military-controlled political parties. The Association of South-East Asian Nations has praised the regime for freeing Suu Kyi and described the election as a step forward. Thailand has announced plans to help Burma build a multi-billion-dollar port.
Suu Kyi’s release has also distracted attention from the recent wave of privatisation, which has ensured that many of Burma’s most important state assets are now in the hands of regime cronies or the families of top generals.
The junta has pulled this trick before. In the mid-1990s and again in the early 2000s, when it released Suu Kyi from house arrest, Burma received boosts in foreign investment and aid, and was allowed to join Asean. Once it had got what it wanted, the junta locked Suu Kyi up again, or, in 2003, attacked her and her convoy on a rural road, killing at least 60 of her supporters. Yet the outside powers, particularly Burma’s neighbours, never seemed to learn, and this time appear willing to offer a new round of engagement with the junta even though there is little guarantee that it will not lock Suu Kyi up again. A regime that has outmanoeuvred the world for five decades looks set to do so once more.