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Moment that mattered: Newly released Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to her supporters

FILE - In this file photo taken Nov. 13, 2010, Myanmar's pro democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses her supporters from her house compound after her release from house arrest in Yangon, Mayanmar. While globalization has reached Myanmar in recent years, the country has been battered by its own government, with the pessimism shaped by decades of experience. While the junta insists it is bringing democratic change to the country, once known as Burma, little was heard but anguish in conversations with dozens of people _ farmers, business owners, monks, journalists, housewives and activists. (AP Photo/File)

“On 13th November, Burma’s military rulers released democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from captivity. Momentarily, the world forgot about the brutal regime that detained her unjustly for 15 of the past 21 years.

Thousands of Burmese gathered at her gate to hear Suu Kyi’s inspiring words: ‘We will walk the road that leads to democratic goals. We will walk it together, we will pave it together.’ Heads of state sent her messages of support, millions of people in the world with scant knowledge of Burma rejoiced at the freedom of the one symbol of Burma they recognize.

Lost in this euphoric moment was the travesty of Burma’s 7th November elections, the first in twenty years. In 1990, Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) had won the election by a landslide, but her party was never permitted to take office.

This election Burma’s rulers left nothing to chance. They drafted a constitution that ensures the military maintain at least a quarter of all seats in both houses of parliament, and that contains provisions prohibiting Suu Kyi from ever becoming president. Repressive electoral laws required political parties to bar members currently serving prison sentences – the NLD was declared defunct after it refused to expel Suu Kyi and more than 400 other jailed NLD members. Six days before Suu Kyi’s legally mandated release date, the generals’ party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won nearly 80 percent of the seats in an election with slight opposition participation and marred by election fraud.

In short, the military government has closely followed its script to divert the international community’s attention – and sadly, the scheme is working. Releasing Suu Kyi has brought headlines that overshadow international criticism of the sham elections. In what is surely a triumph of unrealistic optimism over reality, some analysts are even predicting a “new era for democracy” in Burma.

One serious problem with such sunshine scenarios is that we have been here before. The government has detained and released Suu Kyi three times now. The moment the regime decides that Suu Kyi’s actions, and the crowds she draws wherever she goes in Burma, represent a serious threat, they will likely put her back under house arrest. In February when the new parliament, with its military appointed quota, is expected to assemble for the first time, it will be even more apparent that the recent elections merely cemented military rule with a civilian face.

Over two thousand people including artists, journalists, bloggers, former student leaders and Buddhist clergy remain in Burma’s prisons for peaceful acts of expression. Burma’s long running civil war, dreadful development malaise, and the spectre of an emboldened military with a parliamentary front that enriches itself on sales of Burma’s natural wealth to China and other neighbours, cannot be solved by one person alone.

The world cannot be complacent. One woman’s freedom cannot be the barometer by which to measure change in Burma. For the Burmese people to “walk the road to democracy” with Suu Kyi requires concerted pressure and consistent engagement from the international community. Burma’s trade partners and allies in the region, and governments around the world, should press Burma to release all political prisoners.

Only when all peaceful democracy and human rights activists in Burma are free can we say that real change may be coming to Burma.”

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