Saturday, November 13, 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi released

Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world's most well known prisoners of conscience, has been released after years being held under house arrest. Thousands of supporters gathered outside her house before noon and the atmosphere was electric as she eventually stepped out an attempted to address them. Few heard her words however as the cheers drowned out her short speech. Those near the front of the crowd were able to catch a few words however. "We must work together in unison to achieve our goal" Aung San Suu Kyi told the crowd. She eventually withdrew into her house but before she did, Suu Kyi told the jubilant crowd that she would address them on Sunday at the offices for the National League for Democracy.

Media reaction

As the news broke most news channels cut away from their regular programming. Sky News, BBC, CNN, France 24 and Al Jazeera all covered the events extensively. There was little if any coverage from Russia Today, Iran's Press TV and CCTV News in China. CCTV continued with its political discussion programme Dialogue and the hourly news which followed headlined with the APEC meeting in Japan, a trade forum on Yokohama and the Asian games in Guangzhou, China. Russia Today also headlined with APEC, a story claiming socialism was rising and a report on global warming. It was not until 12:18 GMT, an hour and 20 minutes after her release, that they said "reports are coming in that Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from detention". Press TV reported on a bombing in Afghanistan and currency conflicts between the US and China before moving to the release of Aung San Su Kyi later in the bulletin. Meanwhile Japan's NHK headlined with the Aung San Suu Kyi story despite the fact that Japan is hosting the APEC meeting.

Political response

Soon after Aung San Suu Kyi had spoken, there came a stream of statements from around the globe. British Prime Minister David Cameron said the release was "long overdue and an inspiration to all of us who believe in freedom of speech." He went on to describe her detention as "a travesty designed to silence the voice of the Burmese people." British Foreign Secretary William Hague also released a statement in which he said, "Aung San Suu Kyi's arbitrary detention for most of the last twenty years has been deeply unjust." Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he was "delighted" on hearing the news and described her prolonged detention as "a disgrace."

US President Barack Obama issued a statement saying, "the United States welcomes her long overdue release" and he called for the more than 2,000 political prisoners to be freed by the military Junta. EU President José Manuel Barroso added his voice saying he was "delighted" and there were also positive remarks from Thailand and Japan. However, most most of the voices of support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the condemnation of the military Junta came from the West.

The elections this month have been widely criticised by western democracies, but some countries have been vocal in their support of the military government. The People's Republic of China's Foreign Ministry said the election was "a critical step for Myanmar in implementing the seven-step road map in the transition to an elected government, and thus is welcome." Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also welcomed the vote and characterized it as a "step forward in the democratisation of Burmese society." India was conspicuously silent with segments of the Indian media questioning if principle gave way to expediency.

Speaking to the BBC, Baroness Kinnock, a board member for Burma campaign UK, criticised China, Thailand and India for both praising the recent flawed elections and of investing in Burma which she said was "not in the interests of the people of Burma." While she welcomed the release of Aung San Sun Kyi, Baroness Kinnock said it was "not the time to relax". She called on the international community to increase the pressure and not to be 
complacent. And on the streets of London protesters also called for more action.

Such views have been aired in the blogosphere too. One conservative blgger who goes by the name of Archbishop Cranmer acknowledged it was a day for rejoicing but raised many questions. "Aung San Suu Kyi is free. But free to do what, exactly?" he wrote. Was she free to address the NLD and campaign against the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, to speak out about the torture and plight of other political prisoners or to communicate via electronic media without surveillance or censorship? "If not, what is this 'freedom' we are celebrating?" he asked.

Adrian Phillips, brother in law of Aung san Suu Kyi, who has not spoken to her in over 20 years, described her as "a remarkable woman" and said he had raised a toast to a free Suu and a free Burma. How far off a free Burma is, remains to be seen.

Slow move to democracy

With countries like China remaining supporting allies, change is likely to be slow. There is also a sense of hypocrisy when it comes to opinions voiced by western politicians. Today Baroness Kinnock said that countries who invest in Burma were not helping serve the interests of the Burmese people. Yet when Chinese artist Ai Weiwei raised similar views concerning his own country while under house arrest in Beijing, his calls were virtually ignored. By doing business with China without addressing issues of human rights does not serve the country well, the artist insisted in a recent interview with the Today Programme on the BBC. Trading countries "commit some kind of crime by not look [sic] at such issues," Ai Weiwei said.

Yet the primary focus of David Cameron's visit was business. Human rights were mentioned, according to a spokesperson, though few details were given. There was a more vocal protest however after China asked that Remembrance Day poppies not be worn as it might offend the sensibilities of the Chinese as it would bring back memories of the Opium Wars. On this the British refused to comply. But when it came to human rights, business came first.
"Economics is reality and politics is wishful thinking if you like," The Daily Telegraph's Janet Daley speaking on BBC's Dateline London said on the subject of China. And the same is true of other countries around the world yet to embrace democracy and move away from military dictatorships and autocratic rule. 

Diane Wei Liang, a Chinese writer & broadcaster, described the release of Aung Sun Suu Kyi as a "great moment of freedom and democracy" but added "I'm not particularly optimistic." Janet Daley called the release "essentially a public relations exercise" but RTE's Brian O'Connell said he found it "hard to see what the PR advantage actually was" for the military leaders. Time Magazine's Catherine Mayer offered no firm prediction on what might happen next. "Its a wait and see moment," she said.

Burma may have to fight its own battles towards democracy. Just as in China, there is often little more than rhetoric issued from the west. Hollow gestures in the face of dogmatic dictatorships [BBC / Sky / CNN / Al Jazeera / France 24 / Xinhua].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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