Are western policies failing Burma? And is our veneration of Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi partly to blame? These questions struck me at an exhibition in Bangkok by the Toronto-based photographer Anne Bayin. Amnesty International Canada called the show "a striking illustration of [Suu Kyi's] plight." But it gave me the creeps.
For some photos, Bayin asked famous people such as Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel to express solidarity by holding a half-mask of Suu Kyi over their faces. Other photos show someone wearing a full-face mask of Suu Kyi at apparently random locations: at a pro-Tibet rally in Toronto, for example, or swimming in the Mediterranean. Bayin says her goal was to "depict freedoms often taken for granted." (Suu Kyi was released from her latest spell of house arrest last November.) Yet the masks suggest that our heroes are half-blinded by Suu Kyi's image, while our own identities are subsumed into hers.
Bayin is not alone in seeing Burma as, she says, "a David and Goliath story, one woman against an army and its brutal regime." In our celebrity-obsessed age, it is perhaps inevitable that a nation's struggle for democracy is recast as a one-woman reality show. Why, then, does Suu Kyi's name appear just six times in a recent 21-page report on Burma's future by the highly respected Brussels-based International Crisis Group? The report makes a seemingly unlikely proposition: that a new balance of power created by a flawed election presents the West with "a critical opportunity to encourage [Burma's] leaders down a path of greater openness and reform."
Staged a week before Suu Kyi's release, the ballot was rigged so that the junta's party won by a landslide. The election seemed custom-built to perpetuate military rule: a quarter of the parliamentary seats were already reserved for military appointees. But the primary function of the election, suggests the Crisis Group, is to facilitate "Than Shwe's exit strategy." With retirement looming, General Than Shwe, 78, Burma's absolute ruler since 1992, wants to prevent the rise of another dictator who might threaten him and his family's business interests. That's why, says the Crisis Group, power in postelection Burma is now deliberately spread among four centers: military, presidency, parliament and party. All are still dominated by the military, of course, but their leaders "are neither feared in the same way [as Than Shwe] nor will they be able to wield power as capriciously," argues the Crisis Group. "They are more likely to be given bad news ... and will be more in touch with the realities of the country, which may lead to more rational policy-making." Incremental reform could well follow.
Realpolitik, though, is no match for romance. Concentrating solely on the Lady helps sustain two myths. First, that a popular protest will topple the regime. It won't: the last uprising the 2007 "saffron revolution" led by Buddhist monks was efficiently crushed. Second, that the regime can be sanctioned into submission. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in 2009 that "imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta." Yet Western nations still impose sweeping investment and trade bans on Burma.
While Burma's economic misery is due to the junta's corruption, neglect and mismanagement, the Crisis Group says that the "failed policies of sanctions and isolation" have further impoverished ordinary Burmese. Western oil companies and giant Asian neighbors such as China and India do enough business with Burma to render any embargo ineffectual. But the E.U. and the U.S., which recently affirmed their commitment to sanctions, still take their cue from Suu Kyi. She believes sanctions have had little impact on ordinary Burmese and should only be lifted if human rights improve. I hope she's right, since in this respect she effectively has a veto over Western foreign policy.
The world has long campaigned for Suu Kyi's release. She is free at last. Now what? Well, we must continue to demand that the Burmese government release all political prisoners, end the violent persecution of ethnic minorities and guarantee the liberty and safety of Suu Kyi and other democrats. But we must also put pressure on our own governments. They could start by dismantling the legal obstructions on delivering humanitarian aid to Burma or explain why it gets less aid ($6 per capita) than communist Laos ($62).
On April 12 the E.U. relaxed travel restrictions on 22 top Burmese officials, including the Foreign Minister, while the U.S. is appointing a new special envoy on Burma. These fresh attempts to engage an isolated regime are necessary and timely, although it's unclear how or whether the regime might respond. Still, if there are opportunities to shape Burma's postelectoral landscape and improve the lives of its people, let's at least consider them. It's time to take the masks off, and put the thinking caps on.
This article originally appeared in the April 25, 2011 issue of TIME Asia.