The increased prominence of women in world affairs, especially in the overt policy/political circles, has been one of the few developments that have been truly welcome in this savage decade we're living in. This column bet wrong that Segolene Royal would win in France, but she remains a key opposition leader behind the estimable Sarkozy. Ehud Olmert's transitional run in Israel could end at any time, and odds are that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni stays at or above her current pay grade. A dozen other women are current heads of state (including monarchs), and a dozen more are likely to be among the next two people to lead their respective countries. Beyond that, female power is rapidly reaching parity with men's.
If both Aung San Suu Kyi and Benazir Bhutto are both still alive a year from now, count it as a pleasant surprise, because both are neck-deep in the kind of political intrigue that gets the best of cats laid out routinely, even in the best of times. That their individual ordeals, and the collective ones of their people, are playing out now against the backdrop of what all but the most naive of observers now acknowledge is something like a world war is their bad luck.
It could be good, however, for the rest of us, who can be certain of dire consequences if the situations in Myanmar/Burma or Pakistan escalate further beyond the precipitous peaks of danger both nations saw in 2007. Bhutto and Suu Kyi are both the nominal leaders of the oppositions to dictatorial regimes whose usefulness to their key allies could be approaching its end. As such, they hold great strategic and emotional power in their countries and with various interests around the world, who see in each a best chance to effect clean democratic transitions away from the general "radicalization" of the region; but such power makes them targets for hostile interests in a savagely misogynistic world.
Aside from the obvious, persistent exceptions (Sudan, Iraq), the debacle in Burma was the most egregious display of abuse of power seen in the mainstream media. What began as peaceful protests against price increases for essential goods - a trend sure to continue, look for it at your local green-grocer's - turned, inexplicably, into a bloodbath like nothing since Tiananmen Square. Actually, it was maybe worse, since no reliable death tolls ever came out. We know that hundreds of Burmese were detained, and that their fate was never confirmed. We know that at least 300 Buddhist monks, who helped lead the protests, were lined up against a wall and beaten unconscious, then loaded into trucks and never seen again by anyone whose words have yet penetrated the complete media blackout imposed by the junta.
Against this stands Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate who's spent most of my lifetime either in prison or house arrest because she is a threat to the regime. A perimeter is established around her home, access and communications are strictly regulated; even the White House and United Nations have to ask to speak with her multiple times before it actually happens. The world's Buddhist community, which is one of the fastest-growing faiths, right along with atheism, was humiliated by these guys, and let's not forget who's a Buddhist: Steven Seagal! Burma has already been isolated from much of the explosive growth seen recently in Asia, and their primary benefactors in China (who have their own issues) have limited patience for excessive silliness in their proxies, as Kim Jong Il found out when he was nearly blown to bits on a train-trip through China a couple of years ago.
If the junta yields to pressure for free elections, Suu Kyi will win and questions will be asked. If she's assassinated, they will be blamed and summarily wiped out. Her demise could thus come from any direction - either the junta or their enemies, who would use the hit as pretense to end their 20 years of rule. After what happened this year, it's unclear what the breaking point is. Her position is similar to that of Benazir Bhutto, whose father was hanged by Zia Ul-Haq, the military dictator whose fingerprints are all over Pakistani politics, even 20 years after his assassination.
Ul-Haq gave the push to current quasi-dictator and ex-Gen. Pervez Musharraf, reputedly that nation's master of mountain warfare, whose operations in 1988 are blamed by some for the retaliatory plane crash that killed Ul-Haq and 18 other top officials. He continued to rise over the next decade, through two tumultuous terms by Benazir and the brief, pivotal run of Nawaz Sharif. His missile tests in 1998 (as part of the ongoing conflict with India) declared Pakistan a nuclear nation, but set in motion his downfall. Musharraf took power after Sharif (fearing the inevitable coup) denied landing clearance to a civilian jetliner carrying him back home; the plane landed with a few minutes fuel left, and Musharraf has been the man ever since.
Both Sharif and Bhutto have spent this decade in various forms of exile, but Musharraf yielded to international (i.e., US) pressure to allow them to return a few months ago. He has since officially retired from the military and announced elections for January 2008. Sharif has been pretty mellow, biding his time; he'll probably ride a good showing by his party into a seat at the table, and step up after the winner falters or dies. The real action in this three-way dance was signified upon Bhutto's return: within minutes of disembarking the plane, a squad of assassins went at her, with car-bombs on either side of the motorcade and a fusillade of bullets into the top of her car. Over 100 killed and over a thousand injured, none of whom was Benazir Bhutto; she immediately cut a hellacious Boudica-like promo on her attackers. And that is how business is done.
Of the two, I'd say Bhutto is most likely to end up running her respective country--but likewise, I'd say she is also most likely to go out before she has the chance. Suu Kyi can wait out the dictators, who may yet see her as a conciliatory figure. Bhutto, however, has to basically ball 'til she falls, and that could happen at any time. The odds of she, Sharif and Musharraf all being alive in a year are worse than the Jaguars' odds of making the Super Bowl this season. Could it happen? Sure... sure.
Shelton Hull (aka Archibald Bobo) has been writing professionally since 1995. He also does the column "Money Jungle" for FolioWeekly (Jacksonville). His work has appeared in places like Section 8 Magazine, Movement, CounterPunch, Lew Rockwell.com and the Florida Times-Union. He was a 2002 Fellow at the Academy of Alternative Journalism, AAN/Northwestern University. He works for himself.