Suu Kyi’s co­nun­drum

Mizzima Business Weekly - - EDITORIAL -

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.

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