Skip to content

What now for Ethiopia’s “Aung San Suu Kyi”?

By Barry Malone | Reuters

Bertukan-Mikdesa-078908647The first time I interviewed Birtukan Mideksa I was struck by how careful she was not to say the wrong thing. It was 2007 and we were standing in the garden of a community centre in the part of Addis Ababa where she was raised. She had just been released from prison and the locals — many of whom struggle to feed themselves — had each given about a dollar to throw her the party-cum-political rally we had just attended and to buy her an old Toyota Corolla car to help her back on her feet again.

Such was her care when talking to me that, after less than five minutes, I discreetly switched off my recorder knowing the interview would never make a story, and continued the conversation only out of politeness and professional interest in Ethiopian politics.

It seems her caution was well-placed. The 36-year-old opposition leader and mother of one is back behind bars, accused by the government of speaking out of turn. It has been almost exactly one year since a group of policemen snatched her as she walked to her car with political ally Mesfin Woldemariam. Mesfin — a large, grey-haired man in his 70s — was bitten by a police officer in a scuffle when he tried to intervene.

Now her supporters in the Horn of Africa country are calling her “Ethiopia’s Aung San Suu Kyi” in what analysts see as a move aimed at attracting international attention to her detention. Government officials often smirk when what they see as an overblown comparison is made.

Party colleagues say she was jailed because the government feared her heading an opposition coalition in national elections set for May and rights group Amnesty International calls her a “prisoner of conscience”.

To her champions, Birtukan is the great hope for reconciliation in Ethiopia’s often bitter political landscape. To her detractors, she has been made a romantic figure by her jailing and doesn’t have the intellectual muscle or strategic nous to lead the huge country.

Some Ethiopians see sinister shading in the lack of international attention, claiming western powers are happy to see Prime Minister Meles Zenawi — in power for almost 20 years — stay on as long as he liberalises the country’s potentially huge economy and remains a loyal U.S. ally in a volatile neighbourhood that includes shambolic Somalia.

Others say, with some resignation, that yet another jailed politician in Africa just doesn’t make news anymore.

Opposition politicians have even started arguing amongst themselves over her jailing. A split in Birtukan’s Unity for Democracy and Justice party is being blamed by some on accusations that certain UDJ officials had policy disagreements with their leader and so are now not working hard enough for her release.

Birtukan was jailed for the first time after Ethiopia’s last elections in 2005. A coalition of parties, of which she was a leader, claimed a fix when the government declared victory. Police and soldiers then killed about 200 opposition protesters in running street battles when Meles said they were marching on state buildings to overthrow him.

She was released in 2007, along with other opposition leaders, after the government said they had accepted responsibility for orchestrating the violence and asked for a pardon. But Birtukan, a former judge, then made a speech in which she said she never asked for any such pardon.

Her defiant words riled many and ruling party members said she was trying to destablise Ethiopian politics, risking a rerun of 2005’s trouble. Meles himself — who had to fight hardliners in his party to push through the 2007 pardon deal — seemed angry and backroom negotiations aimed at forcing her to withdraw her remarks began. She refused.

Now, a year into her detention, Meles seems reluctant even to speak her name, preferring to call her “the lady” or “that woman”.

When he finally did say the word Birtukan last week at a news conference, he couldn’t have been clearer about her future.

“There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan,” he said. “Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.”

The words will have chilled her family, friends and political allies.

So what next for Birtukan? Does Meles mean what he says? Or will she be pardoned again after the elections? Is she a future Prime Minister for Ethiopia? Or has she simply become a romanticised figure? Why isn’t the international community pushing harder for her release?

15 thoughts on “What now for Ethiopia’s “Aung San Suu Kyi”?

  1. Which one is better for Ethiopia, Birtukan in jail or Birtukan out of jail?

    Separated from her family and her close friends, Birtukan Mideksa has been for the second time in jail for almost one year. Her exclusion from the public eyes may have emboldened and strengthened some Tegarues and many Ethiopian Arab Muslims who sincerely support the Woyanne government from the bottoms of their hearts for their own selfish interests.

    Some of the Tegarues support Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi) for ethnicity reasons and for the economic advantages they have been benefiting from their cousin – Meles. Many of the Ethiopian Arab Muslims believe they had been oppressed during the kingdom of King Haile Selassie; however, it seems now that they are very happy that the Woyanne government has given them a new status – equality with the other Ethiopian citizens even though the previous Ethiopian authorities had never denied them their rights to live in the country, trade, and run their own businesses in Ethiopia like any other Ethiopian citizens.

    For those people who support the Woyanne government, Birtukan in jail is a great blessing, but Birtukan out of jail, they think, endangers their enormous benefits from Meles Seitanawi. The time of Birtukan in jail has been a time of peace, relaxation, and an assurance that the Meles regime will continue to govern Ethiopia without any formidable force like Birtukan out of jail. The Meles political groups fear Birtukan out of jail more than Birtukan in jail; therefore, they left her locked in jail without giving her a second chance to defend her self before the law.

    The international support for Birtukan in jail is less effective than the support from many other nations for Birtukan out of jail, and that is why the Woyanne government wants to hear and see the action and the silence of the community of nations as far as Birtukan remains in jail.

    When Nelson Mandela was in jail for 27 years, many democratic countries raised their voices against the Apartheid South Africa by isolating South Africa and by refusing trading with that country unless Nelson Mandela was released from jail. As the trade embargo hit South Africa severely, it finally admitted the injustices the government of Apartheid South Africa had been committing against the black South Africans, and finally, Mandela was released from jail because of the international pressures put upon South Africa. Therefore, Nelson Mandela in jail or Nelson Mandela out of jail – in both ways – has become one of the celebrities ever to be elected as the first black president in the history of South Africa.

    On the other hand, the international community has not fully recognized the atrocities and the injustices the Woyanne government has been committing against its own citizens; however, knowing that Birtukan out of jail would get wide publicities that would put her in power, dismantling the Meles oppressive and rotten regime, the Woyanne government has chosen one of the cruelest ways, and that is to separate Birtukan from her daughter and from her mother and put her in jail for an indefinite time. In this way, for the Woyanne government, Birtukan in jail is better than Birtukan out of jail. While in jail, Birtukan cannot travel allover the world, cannot get public attentions, and cannot galvanize a new movement that fully understands her plans for the Ethiopian people – to kill the Meles regime and to empower the powerless nation, the nation of Ethiopia.

    Birtukan out of jail, no doubt, will be another severe headache for Meles and his crime family, and his grasp for power will be smothered immediately.

    Once Birtukan is out of jail (I do not know when that will be), she would probably travel to London, Washington, and to many other famous cities to muster new recruits and to encourage her old supports. After she gets the full support of her parties, she would then lash out at the Woyanne government, but if Meles Seitanawi senses he is in great danger again as Birtukan out of jail continues revealing Meles’ weaknesses in governing the Ethiopian people democratically, he may try for the 3rd time to arrest her by concocting false accusations such as that she has been found planning to overthrow the Woyanne government. Or He may order his death squad to assassinate her and put an end to his every day fear of losing his power and giving it involuntarily to a woman without a fight.

    Even if Meles is a bilinear, he still thinks his money may not help him from being mishandled for his crimes against humanity, so he would struggle to stay in power by putting his opponents in jail or by liquidating them once for all.

    Birtukan out of jail is indeed good for Ethiopia since all the eyes of the Ethiopian people are looking at her that one day she will be the first woman prime minister of Ethiopia. Most Ethiopians are used to have been ruled by a king, and this time they would like to be ruled by a queen even though she would be elected democratically as a prime minister of Ethiopia for a limited time, but the people of Ethiopia would like to see her as their queen and a prime minister. When there is someone likeable, dependable, and motherly or fatherly at the top of governance, the Ethiopian peoples’ quest for a leader that they could rally around that leader would finally come to settle.

    I believe Birtukan out of jail would unify the country, and there will be no more Oromo, no more Amhara, no more Tigray, no more Gurage, and no more Somali – we all will be Ethiopians and Ethiopia will be ours, so let us fight for the immediate release of our future leader, Birtukan Mideksa.

  2. It is a given that Birtukan is threatened to be killed if she tells the truth about the scumbag woyanes.

    By the way, is Meles lightening his skin like Sammy Sosa? He seems a lot lighter skin these days.

  3. She is the hope of Ethiopia as Mandela did it.Don’t worry the west always dance with the winner.Meles fight for about 20 years to come to power but Birtukan may sacrifice less to have the freedom of her people.We all young Ethiopians see our hope in her commitment,struggle,dedication,…for democracy freedom and liberty.IF Meless really don’t worry about her why don’t he release her and see what would happen.That could be the end of dictatorship in Ethiopia.

  4. Barry mallone it is long over due for you to show the world the true face of the armed robbers in addis which is by far rejected by Ethiopian peoples

    Judge Bertukan is indeed Ethiopian Aau san sue chi if not better coz by Aau san plays west politics against the govt of burma judge bertukan is by by far intelligent courageous honest humble and above all she is well respected and loved by Ethiopian peoples from all walks of life unlike whom you mention woyanne officialls who are by far ignorants illitrates albania style comunists armed robbers they does not have the moral capacity to have a say on the honourable judge Bertukan except lies and denial but like always as the saying goes truth prevail over the evil and lies the young judge is the future of this proud nation as woyanne is in the verge of collapse soon

  5. akakizeraf,

    You are absolutely right that Ethiopian Arab Muslims are better than me in supporting, and in voting for, Meles Seitanawi (Zenawi); it was their votes that put this evil dictator in power in 2005, and I am afraid they may do it again in 2010.

    Ethiopian Arab Muslims are new comers from Mecca who came to Ethiopia as religious refugees and settled here for over 2000 years, and for their good behavior they have been citizens of Ethiopia even though from time to time they are found betraying Ethiopia and supporting Ethiopian foreign enemies. They are now waiting for the right time to rise up and destroy the Ethiopian Christians through the help of the Saudi Islamic Kingdom, but I am sure the Ethiopian Christians will defend themselves as they did during the time of Gragn Muhammad.

  6. Birtukan is the symbol of our struggle. We all have to do our best that Birtukan’s story and the brutality of Meles is known around the world. Birtukan is our hope for democracy and we are her hope to get her out of Woyene prison. Spread the story of Birtukan and ask everyone you meet to pray for Birtukan to be released so she can be with her 4 year old little girl.

    The problems of Ethiopia are Meles and Co., not Muslim Ethiopians. Meles DID NOT WIN the election, he got in office by every means of necessary, by intimidating, arresting and killing innocent Ethiopians. Meles stole the election, period!!

  7. Meles Seitanawi stole the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian Arab Muslims by promising that he would put some of them as judges, as parliamentarians, as land speculators, as big business owners, as land contractors, as gold mining supervisors, and some of them as ambassadors and close advisors of the corrupt Woyanne government.

    As Absalom, one of David’s sons, stole the hearts of Israel through deceptions, flattering, and maneuvering (2nd Samuel 15:1-12), Meles Seitanawi, no doubt, had used the same deceptive techniques to win the election of 2005, and he is going to do the same techniques to win the 2010 election by promising the Ethiopian Arab Muslims that they could build a Caliphate in Addis Ababa or in Axum or very close to the Lalibela Church.

  8. Unless there is God’s intervention, Meles has forgotten her.
    the reason is clear, She was put in jail before Obma resumed office to see what actions and policy changes he might be bringing to his office.
    inother words she was a litmus paper to idetify the alkalinity or acidity towards the meles TPLF by the Obama Administration.
    But the America’s Obma was never either alkaline nor acid but a neutral _ water to the Meles.
    So Meles Got two advantages:
    1. It proved to him he can rule the country as far as the american interest is kept by his party
    2. he can contimue attnding the various G20, G8 or G’s meetings and Obama Has forgotten what he made in his presidentail election campaign as regards Meles Zenawi. That speech was a delibrate speech only to rally the Ethiopian American voters on his side. So Mles proved that.
    I think one Ethiopian professor mentioned that my external sprit tells me to elect Obama but my Internal Sprit tells me to elect Maccain as it was always the Ethiopian Interest is better maintained by the Republican than by the Democrats. He was right. Who can forgot, the Jim Carter Democratic party of the 1974 and the Party of Clinton that forced the victm Ethiopia to abondon occupied territories of the fleeding Ertrean soldiers.
    So if Birtukan is to be released it would be only during when the Republican party is chosen.
    Therefore and eventhough i have no right to chosen the USA president i urge all America resident ethiopians to be by the side of any Republican candidates

  9. Litmus papaer for Obama administration

    Unless there is God’s intervention, Meles has forgotten her.
    The reason is clear, She was put in jail before Obama resumed office to see what actions and policy changes he might be bringing to his office.
    In other words she was a litmus paper to idetify the alkalinity or acidity towards the Meles TPLF by the Obama Administration.

    But the America’s Obama was never either alkaline nor acid but a neutral _ water to the Meles.

    So Meles got two advantages:
    1. It proved to him he can rule the country as far as the American interest is kept by his party
    2. He can continue attending the various G20, G8 or G’s meetings and Obama Has forgotten what he made in his presidential election campaign as regards Meles Zenawi. That speech was a deliberate speech only to rally the Ethiopian American voters on his side. So Meles proved that.
    I think one Ethiopian professor mentioned that his external sprit tells him to elect Obama but his Internal Sprit tells him to elect McCain as it was always the Republican Party not the Democratic Party that had better kept the Ethiopian Interest.
    He was right. Who can forgot the Jim Carter’s Democratic Party of the 1974 and the Party of Clinton that forced the victim Ethiopia to abandon occupied territories of the fleeing Eritrean soldiers.

    So if Birtukan is to be released it would be only during when the Republican party is come to power.
    even though I have no right to chosen the president for the USA, I therefore, urge all America resident Ethiopians to be by the side of any Republican candidates.
    August 14th, 2010 at 2:55 PM

Leave a Reply