BANGKOK (Reuters) - Myanmar’s detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be freed when her house arrest ends in November, a government minister said, according to several sources who heard a speech he made.
It is expected her release will come after Myanmar’s first parliamentary election in two decades, the final step in what the ruling generals call a “road map” to democracy to end nearly 50 years of military rule in the former Burma.
Critics have already dismissed the election, the date of which is yet to be announced, as a ploy to extend the junta’s grip on power under the facade of a civilian government.
Sanctions have crippled much of the resource-rich country, which was the world’s top rice exporter when it won independence from Britain in 1948 after more than 120 years of colonial rule.
Although Asian trade is picking up, particularly with China, the regime’s refusal to release political prisoners or halt human rights abuses have made it a pariah in the West.
Analysts say Myanmar wants to join the global economy and attract investment. The generals know they must give up power, nominally at least, to achieve this. But they appear to believe they are the only institution capable of running the country.
No date has been set for the elections and the generals have yet to announce laws for how the vote will be conducted and who can stand. No election commission has been officially formed and the junta has rejected international offers of monitors.
Analysts and Western diplomats, however, believe this has all been decided already and the junta is holding out to try to get dozens of rebellious ethnic groups to take part in the process.
There is wide speculation the vote will take place some time in October on a date deemed auspicious to the notoriously superstitious generals. Thailand’s Foreign Minister told Reuters on Jan. 14 that his Myanmar counterpart had indicated the vote would take place in the second half of the year.
Junta supremo Than Shwe has said very little about the polls, only that the public should make “correct choices”.
A new constitution, drafted by military officers and civil servants, was approved in a disputed 2008 referendum and stipulates Myanmar will be run by an elected civilian government.
Key ministries like justice, defence and interior will be under the control of the military, which will also be granted a quarter of the 440 seats in parliament. The army commander will remain the country’s most powerful figure, senior to an elected president and able to appoint key ministers and assume overall power “in times of emergency”.
Than Shwe has said recently his inner circle of army generals would all be civilians. But analysts expect the generals, or their proxies, to pull the strings still.
Than Shwe and Maung Aye, another ageing strongman, will likely retire and hand power to army proteges who will ensure they are insulated from any future purges. Junta number three Thura Shwe Mann, 62, is widely tipped to take the top post.
The hugely popular Suu Kyi, daughter of independence hero Aung San, remains the biggest threat to the military, as shown when her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won the 1990 poll in a landslide, a result the regime ignored.
Because of her rousing speeches, ability to mobilise pro-democracy rallies and popular appeal among more than a dozen armed ethnic groups who deeply resent the Burmese generals, the junta has kept her in detention for 15 of the past 21 years.
It is unlikely she will be freed before the polls, for fear of her influence on the public.
The junta recognises 10 political parties. The NLD, the National Unity Party and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy were the top three performers in the 1990 polls. The NLD has not yet said whether it would run.
There are divisions inside the NLD between older members who reject the constitution and younger modernisers who believe a boycott could render the NLD a spent political force.
Detained or not, Suu Kyi herself will not be running for office. A clause in the current and previous constitutions means her marriage to a foreigner — late British academic Michael Aris — and the British citizenship of her children disqualify her.
Analysts say the junta will form its own nominee parties fronted by civilian proxies. With more than 2,000 political activists in prison - and probably barred from running even if released — the polls are not expected to be inclusive.
If Suu Kyi and other detained opposition activists are released ahead of the elections, and allowed to participate, this may sway the West to review sanctions and possibly lift them.
Some pro-democracy advocates say sanctions have been counterproductive, serving only to impoverish the people and make the junta more hidebound. Still, Washington remains adamant sanctions will stand until political prisoners are released.
An election that brings change without a full transition to democracy would sharpen the debate over whether sanctions are effective at a time when the United States appears willing to give the much derided political process a chance.
Engagement by Asian neighbours has done nothing to loosen the junta’s grip.
Compiled by Bangkok Newsroom; Editing by Jason Szep and Paul Tait