Would Pakistan have been different if Benazir Bhutto had done a Suu Kyi?

Over the last few months, even steadfast supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi were questioning her decision to keep her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), from participating in Myanmar's first elections in 20 years. However flawed the vote, the argument went, it offered a tiny window of opportunity for democratic-minded parties to get a foothold in Myanmar's political life, and Ms. Suu Kyi should have seized it.

Ms. Suu Kyi's party even split on this question. Myanmar's military regime introduced new election laws in March making it mandatory for political parties to register for the elections. Parties with members who had been convicted could not register unless they expelled those members. Suu Kyi had been convicted for violating the terms of her house arrest after an American swam to her Yangon lakeside home, where she was under house arrest, and stayed for two days before swimming back.

Ms. Suu Kyi faced two choices: stand down from the party so that it could contest the elections, or disband the NLD. She chose the latter. The decision was opposed by some members of the party who left and formed another party and fielded candidates in the election.

The international community too was somewhat disappointed that Ms. Suu Kyi had decided to forego pragmatism in her dogged and principled resistance to the junta. In the last few years, the campaign to have the Nobel Laureate released was flagging. The international community has been eager to do business with Myanmar, rich in all kinds of resources including minerals and natural gas. China got an early foothold, Pakistan followed, India did not want to be left behind.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) community, never big on democracy activism, was also suffering from Suu Kyi fatigue. The U.S and Europe imposed sanctions in the 1990s, but they hurt the Myanmarese people more than the junta. Plus, the U.S made exceptions to the sanctions.

It would have been convenient for the world's conscience had Ms. Suu Kyi relented, and agreed to fight the elections that were held earlier this month under the junta's thumb. But this simple longi-clad woman, shut away by the junta, remained unrelenting.

If only Ms. Suu Kyi had been a Benazir Bhutto, those tired interlocutors might have thought as they burnt the air miles between world capitals and Yangon in their efforts to have her freed.

Common factors

After all, there is so much in common between the two. Both were daughters of national leaders, born into privilege, educated in liberal political traditions. Both lost their fathers to the military's machinations in their respective countries. Ms. Suu Kyi and Benazir both took their countries by storm when they returned home in the 1980s.

But the similarities end there. Benazir was a pragmatist. Helped by the U.S and the U.K, Benazir entered into negotiations with General Pervez Musharraf, to return to political life in Pakistan.

The General passed an ordinance that shut the files on corruption cases against her, and her husband Asif Ali Zardari. In return, Benazir assisted Gen. Musharraf's November 2007 re-election as President.

The expectation was that she and Gen. Musharraf would rule Pakistan together, she as the Prime Minister and he as President. That would have eased the world's conscience as it supported a military ruler seen by the West as essential to its plans in the region. He had become extremely unpopular in Pakistan but Benazir's democratic credentials were to come to his and the world's rescue.

That the rest of the script did not work out exactly in the way either side desired is another story. The deal with Gen. Musharraf was also not Benazir's first compromise with the khakis. Even as Ms. Suu Kyi was spending her first year under house arrest in 1989, Benazir had decided that capitulation was the better part of valour, when it came to dealing with the Pakistan Army. Despite this, she was sacked in 1990, the Army playing a direct role in it. Re-elected in 1993, she went along with the military's proxy war in Kashmir and its backing to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In 1999, Ms. Suu Kyi's husband died of cancer in the U.K. She had refused the junta's permission to go and see him in his last days as it was clear she would not be allowed to return. That same year, Benazir left Pakistan to live in self-imposed exile in Dubai and London as the corruption cases against her began to pile up.

Benazir preferred to speak of her arrangement with Gen. Musharraf, worked out over two years, as a process of “reconciliation” and a “transition to democracy”. When questioned about it after her return to Pakistan in October 2007, she pointed to how she had extracted from him the promise that he would become a civilian president by the end of that year. As for the criminal charges against her, she dismissed them as having no basis and being politically motivated. She was certainly able to bargain for more concessions from Gen. Musharraf as his troubles grew through that year.

On the birth anniversary of its leader, the Pakistan People's Party instituted a new prize called the Benazir Peace Prize, and the first recipient was none other than Ms. Suu Kyi. The irony of it was lost on the party. In the PPP's mythology, Benazir was the greatest democrat in the world and her killing only vindicated this.

Would it have been better for Myanmar and Ms. Suu Kyi had she done a Benazir-like deal with Senior General Than Shwe, aided perhaps by India and China? Politics, is after all, the art of the possible. Would the NLD not have fared better, had she allowed it to contest the elections, as compared to the pro-democracy parties that participated only to be wiped out by the pro-junta parties? Her boycott helped to expose the vote for the sham it was, but in the process, did she lose an opportunity to fight the system from within?

The answers can perhaps be found in Pakistan, where despite the transition to democracy, an illusion of people's rule barely covers the reality of military dominance. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) holds the elected offices, but those who hold these offices know the limits of their powers.

Gen. Musharraf's infamous National Reconciliation Ordinance which wiped out the corruption charges against Benazir left a bad taste in the mouths of most-right thinking people, and was hardly a mechanism for political reconciliation, as subsequent events have shown. It left Benazir's and the PPP's reputation in tatters. Had Benazir lived, she would have no doubt made the accommodations with the military necessary for her government's survival. But she was killed, and her party holds the same people with whom she negotiated her re-entry to Pakistan responsible for her death.

Perhaps then, the question to ask is how different it might have been for Benazir and Pakistan had she done a Suu Kyi.


Suu Kyi calls her detention “illegal”November 18, 2010

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