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Does Suu Kyi Still Matter?

The Nobel Peace Prize winner is just one woman—but Burma is much more.

Read the full text of Suu Kyi’s speech after her release here.

Apart from her freedom, the best thing about Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest in Burma is being able to hear her again. If one feels as if her message of peaceful, democratic progress has been expressed before, it’s because it has. Suu Kyi has been remarkably consistent for 22 years, calling for a dialogue between her party (the National League for Democracy) and the military junta that rules Burma—while simultaneously criticizing the regime for denying the country’s citizens their most basic human and political rights. What’s more, she wants to engage with the country's diverse ethnic nationalities and their bewildering array of political groups, armed militias, and struggling communities.

And yet, despite her calls for people to recognize Burma’s many challenges and the myriad parties that influence them, the world tends to view Burma’s prospects for reform through a prism dominated overwhelmingly by Suu Kyi. The international community’s heralding of her release as a crucial marker of the military regime’s supposed commitment to reform has obscured the country’s complex interplay of ethnic conflict and economic malaise—and it has simplified the reality of a vibrant and diverse opposition movement. There are 2,200 political prisoners still held by the junta, including student activists, ethnic leaders, civil society activists, artists, and Buddhist monks, who can attest to that.

The obsession with one woman as the answer to all of Burma's ills suits peripatetic policymakers, human rights activists, and media outlets throughout the world, who focus their attentions on Burma only rarely. To them, Suu Kyi is still the key acolyte of reform—the face of Burma’s democratic future. But a lot has changed in Burma since 2003, when Suu Kyi was last placed under house arrest, and far more has changed since 1988, when she first rose to prominence. She knows this and has talked in recent days of her desire to understand the changes better. She said, for instance, she could revise her stance on sanctions; her previous support for them led some disgruntled diplomats, Western academics, and business interests to say she was impeding Burma’s access to the outside world. Suu Kyi also wants to talk to all sides that have contributed to Burma’s present state—including those the West often forgets.

Burma is home to the world’s longest-running civil war, spanning over 60 years. There are more than a dozen heavily armed groups in the hinterlands, contained by Burmese government troops. Such massive militarization leads to daily human rights violations among various ethnic groups. This was made starkly clear on November 7, the day the junta held fraudulent national elections, when a renegade ethnic militia called the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) seized control of a border town, driving 20,000 refugees into Thailand. Predictably, the Burmese military responded harshly to this embarrassment: As troops arrived to hunt down the militia, thousands more people were displaced and villages were destroyed. The election and subsequent violence, however, got sparse media coverage in the West—while Suu Kyi’s release just a few days later (the timing wasn’t coincidental) made the front page of The New York Times.

Suu Kyi's freedom must be used as an opportunity to see all of Burma’s horrors and opportunities. Her desire to reconcile the oppressive Burmese state with its minorities is a fundamental subject for future stability and reform, and she must be able to pursue it, along with ethnic opposition leaders who have long been ignored. But, even then, it can’t just be Suu Kyi and other Burmese figures who chart a new course: The international community, including Burma's plundering neighbors—China, India, Thailand, and others—must all take part. It should press for multilateral peace talks with all the sides of Burma’s various conflicts; support a U.N.-led Commission of Inquiry into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity; increase humanitarian assistance throughout the country (a process that should empower Burmese civil society, not subordinate it to the U.N. and other agencies); and embark on a serious discussion of the efficacy of sanctions.

Suu Kyi is unquestionably a crucial element in Burma’s future. But there are other important elements that the world too often fails to see. It’s time to realize that one woman, no matter how brave and brilliant, can only do so much.

David Scott Mathieson is a senior researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.