Aung San Suu Kyi is finally free. Around the world, there is relief that Myanmar's repressive military junta has released this courageous woman whose sacrifices in pursuit of her mission to bring democracy to her country have few parallels. She is a true hero of our times, and her freedom has brought with it hopes that the junta is relaxing its hold on Myanmar and that a transition to democracy is round the corner. It is tempting to think this way. The world is in a rush to do business with Myanmar but as long as Ms Suu Kyi was imprisoned, it could not do so with a clean conscience. Now that she is free, countries can engage with Myanmar without feeling guilty about it. But as we celebrate Ms Suu Kyi's freedom, it must be remembered that this is not the first time she has been set free. The last time was in May 2002. In exactly a year, feeling threatened by the crowds she was drawing wherever she went, the junta pushed her back into house arrest. Her release this time, orchestrated to follow a sham election, is meant to give the generals a softer look after their grip-tightening pseudo-democratic exercise. Going by the rapturous response of the masses, the democracy icon remains a powerful political figure in her country. But there is no indication from the junta that it has changed its stripes.
It was significant that soon after her release the Nobel laureate tempered her remarks on the freedom of speech with a call for national reconciliation through talks with the junta, and spoke about achieving democracy in the “right way.” Was she dropping a hint that international sanctions against Myanmar might have to be relaxed or withdrawn when she said: “This is a time for Burma when we need help. We need everybody to help in this venture: western nations, eastern nations, all nations”? It is difficult to see Ms Suu Kyi making a deal with the generals or accepting their version of democracy. The path ahead of her is extremely difficult. How much political space she will be able to carve out in the new situation, what are the limits to the junta's tolerance of such political activity, how the rest of a fragmented opposition will respond to her pre-eminence are all imponderables. The limits of international influence in Myanmar have been exposed all these years in its signal failure to prod the junta into embracing democracy. Still, the outside world must work to ensure that, aside from Ms Suu Kyi remaining free and able to engage in political activity, Myanmar's more than 2,000 political prisoners are released. India must play a role in this process, using its influence with the generals. Not because the President of the United States wants this, but because it is the only right thing to do.