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Aung San Suu Kyi Isn't Under House Arrest, but She Shouldn't Press Her Luck

Authors: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia, and Hunter Marston, University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies
September 2, 2011
The New Republic

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Aung San Suu Kyi could be forgiven for looking at the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and wondering if she could spark the same sort of upheaval in her own homeland, a country dominated by a military regime for the past four decades. After all, the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate retains incomparable popular support, a point that all of her public appearances since her release from house arrest last November have served to underscore. Her recent trips outside Rangoon have consistently drawn large crowds: In July, when she appeared at the historic site of Bagan, hundreds of ordinary Burmese came out simply for the chance to see and touch a living political hero.

But if the sixty-six year old Suu Kyi feels inclined to assume a revolutionary role, she should reconsider. Rather than look to the revolutions in the Middle East for inspiration, she should leverage her own family history and follow in the footsteps of her father, the canny independence leader Aung San. Though Suu Kyi enjoys enormous popularity, she is still dealing with a highly recalcitrant government. If she wants to make this last act on the public stage count—and wants to survive it intact—she should assume a posture of pragmatism toward the Burmese government, playing a conciliatory, rather than strictly adversarial, role.

Indeed, Suu Kyi should recognize that the current Burmese government is not exactly the same one she encountered when she was arrested years ago. Where previously, the regime used force to break up any efforts by Suu Kyi to travel—even going so far as to attack her motorcade in 2003 when she visited the town of Depayin, killing 70 of her colleagues—now it is allowing her to travel unimpeded, so far.

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