Most people also know that Burma is the setting for an extraordinary political morality tale—Asia’s beauty and the beast. While the world’s most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been forced to fight for democracy behind the locked gates of her home in University Avenue in Rangoon, the country has been slowly strangled by a secretive junta whose fiscal policies are drawn up by astrologers.
There was thus great excitement on 9th January this year when the UN special envoy, Razali Ismail, announced that the State Peace and Development Council which runs Burma had agreed to talks with Suu Kyi. Western newspapers debated whether the talks—the first in five years—meant that she would finally be permitted to play a role in Burma’s future. Some reports even speculated that the junta had decided to recognise the results of the last election, held in May 1990, when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 out of 485 seats.
Six weeks after the special envoy’s announcement, another news item emerged from the news-shy country that appeared to bolster Suu Kyi’s position. A helicopter carrying 29 of Burma’s senior military men had plunged into the jungle north of Rangoon. Among the dead was one of Suu Kyi’s harshest critics who had called for her to be “crushed without mercy”; Lt Gen Tin Oo was a leading member of a hard line faction that opposed weakening the military’s grip.
What the state media did not reveal was that the crash on 19th February was no accident. According to US intelligence, there had been a gunfight inside the helicopter, one general firing upon another. Until then there had been only glimpses of a rumoured power struggle within the military elite—such as the letter bomb that killed Tin Oo’s daughter in April 1997. In any case, Suu Kyi’s supporters took heart. Tin Oo’s death removed an obstacle to dialogue, leaving the junta’s reformist faction in command.
But another more startling story that has gone barely reported in the west is now beginning to emerge because of these same talks. Within the NLD and without, in pro-democracy newspapers, in Rangoon diplomatic circles and in the offices of NGOs that were previously unflinchingly loyal to Suu Kyi, it is now being said that she has failed to give direction to the democracy movement and lacks policy ideas or strategic grasp. She is even accused by some of her own MPs of being too committed to pacifism and western-style democracy to cut a deal in what are bound to be murky negotiations. There is growing concern that her years in isolation have made her haughty, distant and unwilling to listen.
Some of those who have raised these concerns have been ostracised and expelled from the NLD. But this has only prompted others to express their doubts in public. One of Suu Kyi’s former aides has accused her publicly of squandering the democracy movement’s momentum and of missing critical opportunities. Another, the party’s elder statesman and architect of the 1990 election victory, has followed suit. Moreover, Burma’s myriad ethnic groups—the Shan, Karen, Karenni, Chin, Arakanese amongst others—who rallied to Suu Kyi’s side in 1990, have also begun to turn their backs on the NLD, putting their case through their own jungle coalition.
The recent internal and external dissent follows...