After Seven Years, Aung San Suu Kyi Is Free

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released Saturday after more than seven years of house arrest by Myanmar's military rulers. Host Scott Simon talks to Myanmar expert David Steinberg of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

And this was the moment earlier today when pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed after years of house arrest in Myanmar, emerged to greet her supporters.

Unidentified Man (BBC Reporter): The crowd here is again (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) She's waving to the crowd, wearing...

SIMON: The crowds outside Aung San Suu Kyi's compound, as recorded by a BBC reporter in the capital of Myanmar.

Of course, Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She has spent 15 of the past 21 years jailed or under house arrest by her country's military rulers. David Steinberg is a specialist on Myanmar, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He joins us on the line. Thanks for being with us.

Professor DAVID STEINBERG (Georgetown University): Good morning, and thank you.

SIMON: And what's your best estimation as to why Aung San Suu Kyi has been released now.

Mr. STEINBERG: Well, she was going to be held, according to authorities that I met with in the capital a couple of years ago, she was going to be held until the election because they were afraid she would, quote, disrupt it if she were let out before that time. This has nothing to do with her trial. This was the decision that had been made before the trial and they would have found some reason to do it, to hold her.

So, I think that this is an effort by their part to make sure that the military will be in a civilianized position to control the society for the indefinite future.

SIMON: So you sound skeptical that this indicates any real change.

Mr. STEINBERG: This is no real - I think the military - and I have been told that years and years ago - they have every have had every intention of keeping central power in the society through a civilianized form or directly. And the new(ph) government coming in in 2011 will be through a civilianized administration, but the military will still be in central control.

SIMON: We quoted Aung San Suu Kyi as saying we must work together in unison to achieve our goal. Of course her political party was disbanded. How does she begin to form any kind of opposition now?

Mr. STEINBERG: That will be very, very difficult. But I believe that she will try to do something. Every time that she has been released in the past, she has tested the limits of her freedom, and every time the military has slapped her back under house arrest. So - and I think she has a vision of herself and of democracy in that country. Whether that vision will be attained is, you know, a very serious question.

But I think there will be more space, slightly more space, between the government and the people as a result of the elections that have just been held.

SIMON: President Obama, traveling in Japan today, celebrated her release but reminded people that - he said Myanmar, her country, is also a prison. Does this present any possibilities for change in U.S. policy toward Myanmar?

Mr. STEINBERG: The government has said that they are going to continue the Obama policy of engagement with that country. They're going to still keep the sanctions. In effect, in the past, Aung San Suu Kyi has basically made American policy or strongly influenced American policy. Until January of this year, she had been mentioned 1,598 times in the congressional record. Probably a record for modern times.

So there is widespread bipartisan support for what they believe her position has been. But of course she's anathema to the military - to the military leadership at least - and that may cause problems for the United States.

SIMON: David Steinberg, professor at Georgetown University. Thanks so much.

Mr. STEINBERG: Thank you, sir.

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