Will they swap stories of life in detention? Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who languished for five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, is to meet on June 2 with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy activist who before being released from house arrest last November spent the better part of two decades in confinement. The meeting is scheduled to take place in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city and former capital, after McCain made a quick stop on Wednesday in the remote new capital Naypyidaw that was built by the country’s reclusive generals. McCain has called Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi, who has spent decades peacefully pushing the country’s military leaders for political reform, “my inspiration” and a “world-renowned icon of freedom.”
The U.S. Senator’s short visit to Burma, also known as Myanmar, is supposed to be a fact-finding mission to a place that is presenting itself to the world as a nation changed. A civilian government officially took power in March after questionable elections last year. But there’s little doubt that Burma’s military and its proxies still maintain an iron grip on the country, just as they have done since wresting power in a 1962 coup. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won elections held in 1990, meaning that she should have become Prime Minister. But the results were never honored, and Burma’s top brass forced the NLD to dissolve as a political party last year.
McCain visited Suu Kyi 15 years ago in Rangoon, when she was locked up in her Rangoon home. He is scheduled to return to her lakeside villa on this trip. The Naypyidaw leg of McCain’s trip was somewhat more underwhelming. Instead of meeting with General-turned-President Thein Sein, the American Senator was only granted an audience with a Vice President and the Foreign Minister, both former military officers who gave up their army ranks to enter the new government. McCain’s Naypyidaw stop was briefly covered in the Burmese state press, with the government mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar, noting blandly that the two sides “exchanged views on promotion of bilateral ties and cooperation between the two countries.”
Shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama took office, his Administration questioned the effectiveness of economic sanctions against the regime. But earlier this year the U.S. government renewed financial restrictions on Burma, and McCain has consistently supported such sanctions. His trip follows in the footsteps of UN special envoy Vijay Nambiar and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Joseph Yun, both of whom visited Burma last month.
Suu Kyi announced this week that she is planning to travel outside Rangoon for the first time since she was released last year. The last time the democracy activist ventured out in 2003, adoring crowds flocked to her speeches. But in the central Burmese town of Depayin, a clutch of thugs believed to be backed by the military regime surrounded her convoy, killing and injuring her supporters; Suu Kyi was then locked up again by the junta. Her fans worry that a similar scenario could ensue this time around.
In the meantime, the powers that be in Burma seem intent on showing a kinder, gentler face to the international community. Last month, Thein Sein presided over a much-touted amnesty in which thousands of prisoners were reportedly released. But around 2,000 political prisoners remain incarcerated in Burma. Unlike McCain and Suu Kyi, they have no chance to talk about life behind bars.