Only two years ago, the dictatorship demonstrated its indifference to the suffering of its people. When Burma was hit by a severe cyclone, the junta refused international aid. As communities desperately tried to survive, the regime used its military forces not in an emergency relief effort but to herd people to the polls to vote for a constitution that would keep them in power forever.
But if the generals thought hiding away Aung San Suu Kyi would silence her, they are beginning to realize they have made a mistake. Her recent trial and sentencing to renewed house arrest until after planned elections next year show how much they still fear her and the idea of democracy. The regime has not forgotten that the party she led won an overwhelming majority when elections were held in 1990—a result the generals simply ignored.
Up until now, the international community has failed Burma and its people. The response has been divided, confused and driven, in some cases, by economic interests. But President Barack Obama has now pushed the plight of Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi right up the global agenda.
During his visit to Asia, he directly challenged the generals to release her and all the country's political prisoners and ensure that next year's planned elections are free and fair. He has promised that movement toward democracy would lead to warmer relations with the United States and other countries that prize freedom and the rule of law. In Burma, as elsewhere in the world, we need America's moral leadership.
For years, the generals have refused to move. But in recent months they have begun to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi. They have also allowed her, after years of isolation, to meet senior western diplomats.
I hope this is not another trick by a cruel regime to hold on to power. We must demand the generals release their grip on their country. We must judge them by what they do, not what they say.
But what we have seen in South Africa, and many other countries, is that the human demand for freedom can't be suppressed forever. We must hope that the generals can see that their rule is coming to an end and that this brave woman offers the best hope of a peaceful transition.
The Elders, a group of former leaders set up by Nelson Mandela to promote dialogue, keep an empty chair for her at each of our meetings. I look forward to the day when she can join us in person.
Even more, like the people of Burma, I long for the time when she can use her courage and vision to guide her country, as Nelson Mandela did 20 years ago, to a peaceful and democratic future.
But we know freedom is never given easily. We must all be prepared to fight for it.
Anglican priest Desmond Mpilo Tutu is chairman of The Elders. Tutu is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and was elected Archbishop of Cape Town, the highest position in the Anglican Church in South Africa. He is an active international advocate for peace, justice and reconciliation. A tireless campaigner, he continues to speak out for the world's poor, to raise awareness of global crises such as the AIDS pandemic and climate change and to stand up for human rights. For more information, visit TheElders.org.
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