Suu Kyi’s conundrum
High hopes rest on Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party as it prepares to lead Myanmar following their landslide election win in the November 8 elections. If you have been watching the news recently, you would be forgiven in thinking that the current power-holders and backers – including the reclusive former dictator Than Shwe – are happy to handover the keys to the kingdom.
But we have to be careful not to jump the gun. When Suu Kyi takes up the reins of power in February or March, she will initially be shackled by the constitutional and judicial restrictions imposed by the men-ingreen, including a constitutional block on her personally being elected president.
Here’s the thing – how can the beacon of democracy and popularizer of the phrase “freedom from fear” allow the continued straightjacket of control over freedom of expression?
The challenge was outlined by the PEN American Center last week in its call on Suu Kyi and her party to prioritize concrete steps to safeguard free expression as a fortifying pillar of Myanmar’s fledgling democracy.
As we highlight in our Special Issue this week focused on freedom of expression, the incoming government will have its work cut out for it in terms of dismantling restrictions and ending the patterns of harassment and intimidation that continue to prevent the media from doing its job and the general public having a chance to protest or hold the authorities accountable.
The tough part for Suu Kyi, if we feel we understand her correctly, will be the painful delay that she might experience in being able to offer those who fell foul of the draconian laws stifling free speech the freedom they deserve.
Outgoing President Thein Sein may step in with a presidential pardon but even then it will not cover all prisoners and the hundreds awaiting trial.
As PEN points out, those “wrongfully” locked up include people who fell foul of punitive laws that seek to clamp down on free expression or the freedom to protest. Changing laws takes time and effort. What is sad for Suu Kyi is the shackles of the current laws do not appear to offer a quick fix and she has long stressed the need to adhere to the law. This blockage is galling for a crusader who has fought long and hard to free her country from the grips of dictatorship and the accompanying restrictions.
The Lady understands restrictions imposed on freedom from her lengthy periods of house arrests. But her incarceration was a far cry from what most of the journalists, protesters and other civilians have to face behind bars in such notorious institutions as Insein Prison and the fear they all face. In most of the cases, the sentences are unfair and could easily be classed a serious breach of human rights. But could there be a quick fix? The right thing for Suu Kyi’s party to do would be to work hard now, before they take up the reins of power, to identify all those classed “political prisoners” or locked up for speaking their mind or, in the case of journalists, doing their job.
This should be done now with care with the aim of providing a presidential pardon for all. Not a single “wrongly imprisoned person” should be left in jail. And the issue of those awaiting trial needs to be dealt with. The Myanmar people have lost patience over the endless string of cases over the decades.
The Lady is just months away from being in a position to do the right thing.
The message here is start as you mean to go on. No excuses.