It’s 2010, and Aung San Suu Kyi is Free

Copyright 2010, Jessica Keralis

I did competitive acting when I was in high school. One of my performances was a duet acting piece based on the poem “1990” by Bob Holman. The refrain of the poem – the line it keeps coming back to – is

It’s 1990
& Nelson Mandela is free!

The poem is an interesting political and cultural “snapshot” of that year – it talks about everything from gay rights to tearing down the Berlin Wall to Tiananmen Square and the AIDS epidemic. Mr. Holman framed that pivotal year with Nelson Mandela’s release in his poem. It would seem that we are in a similar period of change as the world globalizes, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is a similarly appropriate event with which to frame it.

The question remains, however – will her release bring any relief to the Burmese refugees and IDPs?

Burma’s military junta is notorious for one of the worst human rights records in the world. Aside from the standard battery of no freedom of speech or press or assembly, no independent judiciary, forced labor, sexual violence, human trafficking, and official corruption, the government targets ethnic minority groups for “Burmisation” – a polite euphemism for a slow genocide. The military kills, rapes, and pillages: they burn down entire villages, destroy farming tools and livestock, force villagers into labor, and force the women to marry them. These minorities, which make up more than one third of Burma’s population, are constantly fleeing this military-perpetrated violence, which has created one of the worst refugee crises in the world. There are nine permanent refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border alone, with more on the borders with India and Bangladesh and in Malaysia. It is estimated that there are nearly 300,000 refugees from Burma, the majority of which are the Royingya and the Karen, and hundreds of thousands of more IDPs throughout the country.

Optimists hoped that the election on November 7, which was meant to mark the transition to civilian rule, would lay a new foundation for an improvement in the country’s situation. Unfortunately – surprise! – the election was declared a sham by pretty much everyone except for Burma’s autocratic neighbors. The elections were “cancelled” in nearly 24,000 villages along the eastern border (where the ethnic groups are focused, naturally). The UN and foreign journalists were not allowed to observe. Allegations of fraud and vote-rigging are all over the place. Dr. Suu Kyi was barred from participating, so her party, the National League for Democracy, boycotted the whole thing. The junta’s de facto party was the only one who could field candidates for all of the positions, so it naturally took 80% of the “vote,” which basically means that the junta is now wearing a civilian mask.

Despite international disappointment, however, governments and democracy advocates around the world welcomed Suu Kyi’s release as a positive step and expressed the hope that it marked the start of a change in direction for the country. Other commentators are not so cheerful, though. Some see her release as a show of confidence by the regime, or a tactic to distract the world from the country’s sad excuse for an election. Since winning her freedom, she has been walking on eggshells: she has withheld comment on most major issues, including whether or not she supports continued sanctions against the country, and her words have been “measured and careful.” Also, she has apparently not decided whether she wants to join Twitter or Facebook. The junta does not seem particularly worried.

From this point, things will undoubtedly be slow-going. After all, an election does not magically make things better (even though Thailand seems to think so). Leaders of armed ethnic groups fighting for the autonomy promised by her father before he was murdered support Suu Kyi and have welcomed her call for a multi-ethnic conference. But most Burmese refugees do not believe that anything will change. Saw Tun Wai, a Kareni who works as a teacher in the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand, firmly believes that the elections offer no hope for positive change, “neither for the Karen, nor for any of the people in Burma.”

Jessica Keralis is a public health specialist with an active interest in international health and refugee issues. She is the Communications Committee chair for the International Health section of the American Public Health Association. She blogs for the IH section and can be followed on Twitter here.

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