The West is celebrating Aung San Suu Kyi this week. The Burmese pro-democracy activist, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), has been giving speeches and receiving honors. She stopped in Oslo to pick up a belated Nobel Prize, awarded to her in absentia in 1991, when she was just beginning her long stint in house arrest. (All in all she's spent some 15 years of the past 24 in detention.) On her swing through Ireland she received prestigious awards from Amnesty International and the city of Dublin. The audience at the London School of Economics serenaded her with "Happy Birthday" on her visit there. (She has just turned 67.) On Thursday she's giving a speech to both houses of the British parliament, a privilege granted only rarely to non-Britons.
If anyone deserves such accolades, it's her. Despite years of vicious treatment meted out by Burma's generals, the Lady -- as the Burmese often refer to her -- stuck doggedly to her commitment on non-violence and pressed her demands for greater freedom for her people. The military government repeatedly urged her to go back to Britain to be with her husband and two sons there -- offers she resolutely rejected, knowing that the authorities would probably never allow her to return. She has calmly defied soldiers who leveled their guns at her and she has survived at least one overt assassination attempt. She is, without question, a brilliant moral exemplar, a member of the same family tree that includes names like Gandhi, King, Mandela, Sakharov, and Havel.
And yet there is a distinctly valedictory note to all the fanfare on this trip. Her European tour is a story of honors long and unjustly deferred. At each point along the way another circle closes, another bit of unfinished business is checked off the list. Her visit to Britain includes a long-awaited reunion in Oxford with members of her extended family. This is sure to be a bittersweet occasion.
More from Democracy Lab
- LGBT rights and the long road to democracy in Georgia
- The 'Cold Peace' Between Moscow and Washington Just Got Colder
- Too Many Stakeholders Spoil the Soup
We in the West are right to celebrate her past achievements. But in one way the rejoicing is a bit premature. The stark fact is that her native country is still a long way from achieving the democracy of which she and her colleagues have dreamed of for so many decades.
Burma has only just begun a slow and methodical transition that may or may not end up in the promised land of liberal democracy. Last year, President Thein Sein, an ex-member of the ruling junta, launched a program of tentative liberalization that has included a softening of censorship, legalization of trade unions, and freedom for hundreds of high-profile political prisoners.
That process of opening culminated on April 1 with a parliamentary by-election in which Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 of her NLD colleagues won almost all of the seats at stake. Unfortunately, that was merely a fraction of the overall seats in the national assembly, so the freshly elected NLD members are outnumbered by the government's proxies to the tune of 15 to 1. Thein Sein's reform moves can't disguise the fact that Burma is still under the control of the same old elite.