STRATFOR'S GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE REPORThttp://www.stratfor.com
5 June 2003
Today's Featured Analysis
Suu Kyi Detention Points to Deeper Troubles for Myanmar
The recent detention of pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi
following clashes between government supporters and members of
her National League of Democracy has raised questions of the
efficacy of the snail's-pace talks between the government and
opposition in Myanmar. But the attack that led to Suu Kyi's
detention might reveal a deeper problem for the central
government than simply an active pro-democracy movement.
U.N. Special Envoy to Myanmar Razali Ismail has said he will go
ahead with a scheduled trip to Yangon on June 6, a week after the
military government placed pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu
Kyi in "protective custody" after a clash between members of her
National League of Democracy (NLD) and pro-government members of
the Union Solidarity and Development Association.
The detention has raised questions about the government's
commitment to the ongoing dialogue with Suu Kyi, aimed at
ultimately ending the international isolations and sanctions on
cash-strapped Myanmar. But more fundamentally, the timing of the
clash, just before Razali's long-planned visit, suggests deeper
problems for the regime than simply dealing with the NLD. Rather,
it might signal dissent from local officials worried that
Yangon's talks with Suu Kyi will strip them of their power and
Reports vary widely over what exactly happened May 30, but both
government and opposition sources agree that there was a violent
clash between NLD and union members in northern Myanmar after Suu
Kyi visited the area. The union was founded in 1993, and,
according to the government, was established "to strengthen the
Union of Myanmar, to promote love and understanding among
indigenous peoples, to strengthen state sovereignty, to safeguard
territorial integrity and to develop the country and to build a
peaceful and modern State."
Yangon claims a spontaneous melee broke out when union members
rallied against NLD supporters, leaving four dead and about 50
injured. The government then took Suu Kyi and 19 other NLD
leaders into protective custody to avoid further violent
Opposition supporters claim the government sent police or
military troops, local thugs, prisoners and union members to
ambush Suu Kyi's caravan, attacking NLD members and assaulting
Suu Kyi herself, who by some accounts sustained head and shoulder
injuries from broken glass. These reports claim that about 70 or
80 people died, several hundred others were injured and numerous
NLD members were detained.
While the exact cause of the violence is disputed, the existence
of the clash is undeniable. NLD members had complained prior to
the May 30 clash that union and local officials were harassing
their meetings and travels, using the excuse that the NLD was
"disrupting" traffic when members came to town. This incident,
then, was not entirely out of the blue, but the timing is rather
unfortunate for the central government.
Despite some differences of opinion within the ruling State Peace
and Development Council (SPDC), there had been an agreement to
try to press ahead with talks with Suu Kyi and undertake a public
relations campaign to try to extricate Myanmar from its
international isolation -- largely triggered by the military
government's refusal to accept the results of the 1990 elections.
Thus Yangon freed Suu Kyi from house arrest, allowed her to
travel the country and agreed to talks. Government officials also
reassured the United Nations, through Razali, that it was
interested in reform.
But the arrest of Suu Kyi just before a scheduled visit by Razali
is a black mark against Yangon. And, given the timing, it
suggests that the clash in northern Myanmar might not have been
entirely sanctioned by the SPDC. Rather, it instead might reflect
an already existing split in the SPDC or, more troubling for
Yangon, it could be the result of a local official taking things
into his own hands.
The SPDC has been split on the idea of working with Suu Kyi, but
had come to a consensus to continue. But in February, the SPDC
promoted Maj. Gen. Soe Win to Secretary 2, the fourth-ranked
position on the council. Soe Win had been commander of the
Northwest Military Region until a sweeping change in Myanmar's
regional military commanders placed him in Yangon -- where the
top leadership could monitor him.
Several opposition sources inside and outside Myanmar have
accused Soe Win of masterminding the attack on Suu Kyi in an
attempt to undermine the reconciliation process and return to a
more hard-line approach toward the NLD. And while this might be
true, there is another, more likely underlying trigger for the
incident -- a growing distrust of the reconciliation process by
The central government understands the need to alter the
international opinion of Myanmar to break free from sanctions and
boost the country's economy. Thus, Yangon has assured neighboring
Thailand that Suu Kyi's detention is only temporary and that it
will re-open universities on June 16, less than three weeks after
their closure following the clash. But local military commanders
and government officials currently benefit from the existing
political order, one in which they effectively serve as local
warlords backed by Yangon. It is this reason that the SPDC called
back nearly all of the regional military commanders in 2001 -- to
reign in the growing power of these disparate officials who were
stripping power from Yangon in their own self-interest.
And for them, the idea of more democracy in Myanmar is a direct
challenge to their current power and authority. They oppose moves
to compromise with Suu Kyi -- even moves shy of reintroducing
full participatory democracy -- because it threatens their very
existence. Thus, it is not unlikely that the May 30 actions were
locally organized attempts to throw a wrench into the already
difficult mechanics of reconciliation.
And the government's decision to place Suu Kyi and other NLD
leaders in protective custody -- a common euphemism for detention
-- might actually be in part to prevent further outbreaks of
violence -- particularly given the apparently unrelated bombings
that have taken place in various areas of the country in the past
six months. Yangon now is in a difficult position. If it intends
to maintain some momentum toward international normalcy, it must
continue talks with Suu Kyi and refrain from overly obvious
actions designed to limit the NLD's movements and operations.
But if regional commanders -- or even some members of the central
leadership -- are opposed to the process, Yangon's top three
leaders must take action. And that very well might come in the
form of another military or regional government reshuffle.
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