A Shaky Freedom

This is the moment when Aung San Suu Kyi emerges from her compound after spending the last 15 out of 20 years under house arrest imposed by the military dictatorship in Burma. Suu Kyi’s supporters and the press have gathered at the gates in anticipation after the Junta opened a checkpoint to allow access to her quasi-prison located on 54 University Avenue in Rangoon. The shaky amateur video footage broadcast all over the world is a sign for the chaos unfolding in front of the famous metal gates. And then, after a few minutes of uncertainty, Suu Kyi emerges, standing maybe one meter above the crowd, which erupts in cries of joy. A remarkable detail in the footage shows Suu Kyi resting her hands, almost immediately, on the sharp spikes of the gates, as if she is reaching out to her people. With a short but measured delay, she is flanked by two men who also wave to the crowd. All of them wear white clothing, signifying their innocence and unjust imprisonment under a brutal regime. The brightness and the simplicity of their clothing stands in stark contrast to the intricate uniforms of the military leadership. This contrast is is further emphasized when Suu Kyi accepts a flower given to her by a supporter and ties it into her hair. Suu Kyi and the flower, a beacon of beauty and light, in an otherwise murky world of brutality and oppression.

On closer inspection, the remarkable footage emerging out of Burma throws up a number of problems. The sharp spikes separating Suu Kyi from the crowd are not pointing inward to the compound, but rather, they are pointing to the people. In other words, in the footage it is the people, still, who appear imprisoned despite the perception of their leader being freed. Also, the gates which separate Suu Kyi from her people remains shut. So while the global news networks report on “Suu Kyi in freedom”, or “Suu Kyi released from house arrest”, the visual representation of her so-called release tell an entirely different story. She, and the Burmese people, continue to be separated by a metal gate, which, in this case, signifies the rule of the military.

We have been here before. Almost exactly the same kind of footage of a Suu Kyi release already exists from previous years. The same gates, the same metal spikes, and the same ageless woman. The footage of Suu Kyi’s release is caught up in a repetitive cycle of representation. It’s what you might call a semiotic trap. We look at her recent release, and we wonder, if we have not already seen this exact image before. This very question dampens the power of the most recent release footage, because, rather than documenting a unique moment in time, it documents a recurring event played out in front of the assembled global media networks. The ‘release’ becomes a performance that brings up more questions that it brings answers. Here, the metal gate not only acts to separate Suu Kyi from her people, but it also hides what is going on behind them. The footage of her release looses its power because the secretive operations of the Junta are further manifested in that which is hidden from the viewer. In a sense, all the connotations of imprisonment become irrelevant because rather than signifying freedom or liberty, Aung San Suu Kyi signifies hope – the hope that the latest footage of her conditional release, might, just, also be the last.

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