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Q+A: Will Myanmar's generals free Suu Kyi?

BANGKOK (Reuters) - The house arrest of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi is due to expire on Saturday, but the country’s reclusive military rulers have given no indication about whether or not the long-time campaigner for democracy will be freed.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s detention was extended last August after a court found she had broken a law protecting the state against “subversive elements” by allowing an American intruder to stay at her home for two nights.

Critics said the charges were cooked up to ensure she was sidelined in the run-up to last Sunday’s election, the first since polls in 1990 that her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won convincingly. The junta ignored the result.

WHAT WOULD THE JUNTA GAIN BY RELEASING HER?

The international community has long called for the release of Suu Kyi and an estimated 2,200 other political detainees and said the country’s political process would lack credibility as long as they remained locked up.

The parliamentary election was widely seen as flawed and fraudulent to ensure victory for the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the international community was very critical.

Now that the regime’s chosen party has won, it might seek to win some international legitimacy by freeing Suu Kyi at a time when she is little threat to the formation of a government it can choose and control. Her release might also appease the Burmese public and ward off the threat of protests.

If the military wants Western sanctions to be lifted, this would be a step in the right direction, although it would be highly unlikely embargoes would be relaxed immediately. The regime knows there is a fierce debate as to the effectiveness of sanctions and that U.S. and European investors are tempted by the country’s vast resources and untapped potential.

BUT DO THE GENERALS REALLY CARE ABOUT THEIR IMAGE?

They never really have and recent exploits suggest they still don’t. The military barred foreign journalists and observers from an election it said was free, fair and democratic and has said nothing to counter the deluge of complaints by voters, political parties and foreign governments that the USDP cheated.

As long as neighboring China unconditionally pours money into the country and robust trade with Thailand and India continues, Myanmar may not need Western investment, which would also come with pressure to be more transparent and democratic.

If Myanmar gives energy-hungry China unfettered access to its oil and gas reserves, China is almost certain to guarantee its political support and shoot down any moves against the Myanmar regime in the United Nations Security Council.

WHAT HAS THE GOVERNMENT SAID ABOUT SUU KYI?

Not a great deal. Foreign Minister Nyan Win, at a regional conference last month, “did not dispute” the notion Suu Kyi would be freed when her sentence expires, according to officials from neighboring countries. Nyan Win did not actually say she would be freed.

Prior to that, Home Minister Maung Oo told a January 21 meeting of businessmen and officials that Suu Kyi would be freed when her term expired. But his comments are also often disputed.

DOES SUU KYI POSE A THREAT TO THE REGIME?

Her huge popularity and long period of detention -- 15 of the past 21 years -- suggests the generals do see her as a threat.

Although the election is over, the transfer of power is not complete. Parliament has not convened, a president has yet to be chosen and no government has been formed.

This is why many analysts think she will not be freed on Saturday. Suu Kyi has spoken out against the election and if she were released, she might do so again. Although unlikely, her supporters might launch protests and the military would not want disturbances on its hands at such a critical juncture.

HOW COULD THEY JUSTIFY DETAINING HER LONGER?

Analysts say Myanmar’s judiciary is not independent and there could be any number of pretexts the junta could use to detain her further, perhaps arguing that she breached the terms of her detention.

Suu Kyi’s NLD party was dissolved in September because of its election boycott and is therefore an “unlawful association” according to the constitution. The NLD’s offices remain open and it insists it is still in existence.

The NLD’s campaign to persuade voters not to cast ballots, although apparently legal because they only informed them of the rights, might also constitute a breach if a court decides so.

Editing by Robert Birsel

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