x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Aung Sang Suu Kyi: the danger of a dissident voice

In the late 1980s and early 1990s the British banned the broadcasting of the voices of Irish republicans such as Gerry Adams. Might the heroine of Myanmar suffer a metaphorically similar fate?

One of the strangest features of British media in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the broadcast ban on the voice of Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish republican party Sinn Fein, traditionally the political wing of the IRA. Margaret Thatcher introduced the ban in 1988 in order to "starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity" and Adams wasn't the only person it was meant to apply to. Nevertheless, since he was Sinn Fein's most-interviewed representative, he seemed to bear the brunt of it.

Very weird it was too. Video footage of Adams's craggy, expressionless face would play on the news and then a voiceover actor would recite his words, slightly out of sync, over the top. It should be stressed that Adams was an elected member of parliament at the time. All this rigmarole served to do was make him seem perversely charismatic and the British government ridiculous.

Adams later observed that many of those actors had been better speakers than him. His own delivery is rather gruff. Perhaps the British satire show The Day Today hit on a wiser strategy for the UK government when it depicted an Irish republican "who under broadcasting restrictions must inhale helium to subtract credibility from his statements". In any event, the ban was unsustainable and Thatcher's successor, John Major, lifted it in 1994, just after the IRA ceasefire. Anarchy, for the most part, failed to materialise, and Sinn Fein spent the remainder of the decade reconstituting itself as a relatively mainstream electoral party.

For some time now, issues south of the border have held Gerry Adams's attention more than the disputed territory to the north. Early this week a watershed of sorts was reached. It was reported that Adams would stand for election in the Dail, the Republic of Ireland's parliament, in the hope of aiding Ireland's economic recovery. He will stand down from his parliamentary seats at Westminster and at Northern Ireland's Stormont assembly. What the British government devoutly wished for throughout the 1980s may yet come to pass: Adams could simply fade out of UK politics, no more to trouble the mainland with his pronouncements.

The obvious lesson to draw is that it was a mistake to try to mute Adams in the first place, as it only gave him more power. Yet the story of another dissident politician who hit the headlines this week suggests the moral is not applicable in all cases.

The measures by which Aung San Suu Kyi has been excluded from Myanmar's political scene are every bit as paranoid and absurd as the voice ban which bound Gerry Adams, though without the benefit of a funny side, and with little prospect of a happy resolution. Having spent the best part of 20 years under house arrest, Suu Kyi is now notionally free, just in time to miss Myanmar's general election.

In reality, it is likely that she will be kept on a short lead. Suu Kyi is a popular heroine with profoundly democratic instincts. Myanmar's ruling junta just had to go to the trouble of rigging a poll. Despite Suu Kyi's claim that her release was "unconditional", it is hard to believe that the regime's generals will allow her to speak freely. Indeed, it may have been her very reticence over the past couple of years that convinced them to risk her in a more spacious enclosure. Her first speech after her release was careful to downplay her significance as an individual actor. "Popularity is something that comes and goes," she said. "I don't think anybody should feel threatened by it."

Aung San Suu Kyi's options are few. One false note and she will rejoin Myanmar's 2,000 remaining political prisoners. She is now 65 years old; almost a third of her life has been spent under guard. Meanwhile the junta's power seems as deeply entrenched as ever, and it has a good deal still to play for. With Suu Kyi's cooperation it stands a chance of reversing international sanctions. One grim possibility is that Suu Kyi's own voice will fade to silence, while her person is retained as a convenient puppet. At any rate, it would be well to listen closely at her next appearance, to see who is really talking when she speaks.