The World from The Hill: Fears for Nobel laureate as democracy fervor spreads

Lawmakers are concerned that the wave of freedom fervor sweeping across the globe will result in the reimprisonment — or worse — of a famous pro-democracy opposition leader.

But for a Congress that has long heralded Aung San Suu Kyi, the spirit of peaceful overthrow that began in North Africa and has spread through the Middle East also presents a tantalizing opportunity to pick up where the Saffron Revolution left off.

Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November, to the delight of legislators on Capitol Hill who long lobbied Myanmar's military junta to release her. The 65-year-old had been imprisoned in her home for 15 years, from 1989 to 2010, and was released just days after elections that were roundly condemned as undemocratic in a House resolution.

A junta-run newspaper in the repressive nation, New Light of Myanmar, ran what was called a "veiled threat" last week against the beloved opposition leader. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy had just released a statement supporting the effectiveness of Western sanctions against the regime.

The Obama administration said afterward that "she could be in some danger."

"We remain concerned about Aung San Suu Kyi's safety and security," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday. "This is a fundamental responsibility of Burmese authorities to ensure her safety and that of all Burmese citizens."

Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, introduced that November resolution condemning the junta's elections.

He told The Hill that in light of recent developments he "wouldn't be surprised" if Suu Kyi is arrested again.

"Obviously the Burmese government is watching very closely what is going on in the Middle East and terrified that the equivalent of George Washington's daughter is going to be in the forefront and they have the possibility of breathing a little freedom into that country," Manzullo said.

Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, a revolutionary considered the father of modern Burma, as the country is still referred to by the U.S. and United Kingdom in non-recognition of the junta's name change to Myanmar.

Efforts for the country in the last Congress included the renewal of import restrictions contained in the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 and a unanimous consent resolution in 2009 sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) calling for Suu Kyi's immediate release. Gregg, who has retired from the Senate, is now a columnist for The Hill.

Manzullo said it was the pressure of public opinion that freed Suu Kyi from house arrest, and if the junta tries to put her back there, "Twitter, Facebook and the other Internet voices are going to go ballistic.

"If they arrest her, it may cause more trouble than if they let her alone," he said.

Suu Kyi has been honored several times in Congress, and lawmakers have eagerly taken up the Nobel Peace Prize recipient's cause.

In 2009, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) became the highest-level American politician to meet with junta leader Than Shwe. He also met with Suu Kyi, calling for her release, and brought home an American arrested for swimming to Suu Kyi's home, an odd incident that served as an excuse for the military regime to extend the opposition leader's house arrest.

Webb, who recently announced he is not running for reelection, did not comment for this article.

Manzullo said the citizens of Myanmar are "rightly worried" about what may happen to Suu Kyi, as the regime fears her as the figurehead of the long-simmering democracy movement.

Before Tunisia and Egypt, and even the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran, thousands of Buddhist monks led peaceful protests for several weeks in the military state. The protests were eventually put down violently, resulting in an unknown number of deaths, including that of a Japanese photojournalist, Kenji Nagai, who was shot in the chest while covering the crackdown.

Like the economic underpinnings that sparked unrest targeting longstanding Middle East rulers, the 2007 Myanmar democracy protests arose from fuel price hikes.

Manzullo said "anything is possible" when it comes to the chances of the Middle East protest fervor reigniting democracy demonstrations in Myanmar.

"Who would have thought that [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak would step down?" he said.

"This is an opportunity for people to recognize the fact that deep within the soul of every individual is the seed to be free of government oppression," Manzullo said. "That's something you're born with; sometimes it takes years to germinate."

He said that large numbers of young people, coupled with the "explosion" of social media, gave renewed strength to democracy movements in troubled regions.

Even Suu Kyi told The Globe and Mail in an interview published Friday, “As soon as the conditions are right, I want to have both Facebook and Twitter.”

"The world has suddenly become much smaller," Manzullo said. "There is a commonality linking people who live in oppression — not a political party or movement, but an innate desire to be free."