Is Burma's Genie Out of the Bottle?

It is starting to appear that Burma's junta may have inadvertently set off political dynamite by coupling their rigged Nov. 7 election with the decision to free democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi six days later.

A sea of jubilant supporters swarmed to Suu Kyi's colonial villa on the banks of Inya Lake in Rangoon immediately upon her release, to hear her tell them she intended to keep up the fight to turn Burma into a democracy. The jubilation in Rangoon was reflected across most of the western world, with US President Barack Obama and other world leaders calling attention to her release.

The massive show of both domestic and international support for Suu Kyi's freedom thus presents the junta with a quandary. It engineered the national elections in an attempt to gain legitimacy after international condemnation of the regime in the wake of an attack on Suu Ky's convoy in 2003 in which as many as 70 of her supporters were murdered by pro-regime thugs. The junta's official announcement of the end of Suu Kyi's period of confinement under house arrest appears to have been another attempt to gain international approbation of the regime.

"The regime's calculated risk was to free Aung San Suu Kyi after broad daylight robbery on the 7th election," said Aung Zaw, the editor of the Irrawaddy Daily, which is published across the Thai border in Chiang Mai. "Many thought that after stealing the votes, the regime felt comfortable in releasing her. They are dead wrong again. Her popularity has remained intact and this time she has re-emerged not just the leader of the National League for Democracy but the national leader."

The sheer euphoria of the crowds surrounding Suu Kyi after her release has to have been a shock to the generals, who have left Rangoon for their own isolated capital in Naypyidaw, 320 km north of the country's biggest city. If her public statements are any indication, she appears certain to up the ante for the dictatorship. Although there is considerable worry, in Rangoon and internationally, whether the junta will allow her to remain free, she has set off on a whirlwind series of moves, including meeting with leaders of Burma's struggling ethnic groups, several of which have carried on a long-running war of separation from the national government. She has announced that she hopes to see a peaceful revolution within the country and said she would be willing to work with the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, which overwhelmingly won the election amid widespread reports of vote-rigging and fake ballots.

"This is a very dangerous period," Khin Ohmar, chairwoman of the Network for Democracy and Development in Burma, a umbrella organization of Burmese political activists in exile, told the Inter Press Service news agency. "The regime is not releasing her out of respect that she has an important role to play in Burma's political process and national reconciliation."

But the junta has to be as concerned as her supporters about what happens next. Having gone this far with both the election and freeing her in trying to legitimate itself in international eyes, arresting her again will once again plunge Burma back to the pariah status from which it is struggling to free itself. The election has probably called more attention to Burma's political process than the isolated junta, led by senior general Than Shwe, ever thought it would.

The situation inside the country is beginning to resemble two other crisis periods in the country – one when she returned to the country in 1988, which coincided with a political uprising against the regime of the late strongman Ne Win in which an unknown number of protesters were killed. Some estimates go into the thousands. Although she addressed a mass rally in Rangoon in 1988 that drew hundreds of thousands of supporters, the military miscalculated by calling a 1990 election that her newly-minted National League for Democracy appeared to have won by a massive number of votes estimated at more than 80 percent, severely embarrassing the regime and causing Ne Win's downfall.

Instead of allowing the vote to stand, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she remained for the next six years. Once freed, she continued to advocate nonviolent democracy.

"It is asymmetrical politics that you started to see in Burma after Suu Kyi arrived on the scene," a Rangoon-based political analyst told IPS. "You had the powerful, heavily armed military against a woman leading a movement that stood for peaceful political change through democracy. She deserves credit for making the democracy movement in Burma a non-violent one and helping to keep it that way."

The junta miscalculated again in midsummer 2007, when it raised fuel prices drastically, triggering tens of thousands of protesters, led by the country's Buddhist monks to take to the streets for weeks of protest. Ultimately the army was called in arresting and shooting demonstrators at two of the country's holiest shrines and sealing the country off from the outside world as marchers attempted to walk from Shwedagon Pagoda to Sule Pagoda in Rangoon. It is unsure how many died. Hundreds of monks were believed to have been arrested.

The government almost certainly would have fallen except for the fact that it has been largely propped up by resource sales of natural gas, minerals and timber to India, China and Thailand, using the funds to equip its military with state-of-the art equipment. China particularly has given the junta aid and cover, along with Singapore, which has served as a conduit for the generals' money into the international banking system. It is questionable whether her release, coupled with elections, emboldens China particularly and other allies to deepen ties with the junta because it has some protective coloration. Indeed, officially China said it is"confident that Burma will continue its process of peace and ethnic reconciliation."

It is thus now a test to see how long the government will be able to tolerate her freedom. She obviously dares assassination and probably the generals would have no compunction about doing it. But that could kick off a huge firestorm in the country.

"Her freedom will last at some stage," said Aung Zaw. "It is releasing her into a bigger prison and can catch her again anytime or even harm her in serious way. I see more trouble before I see any kind of settlement as the regime has erased Aung San Suu Kyi from its mind to talk to since she entered into politics 22 years ago."