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A vociferous leader turned silent

9 October 2015 06:30 pm - 2     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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There is increasingly vocal criticism internationally and here in Sri Lanka of Burma’s (Myanmar) opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for not doing enough for the country’s democracy, and for not intervening on behalf of the country’s persecuted minorities, in particular the Rohingya Muslims. Her silence, it has been suggested, is highly unbecoming of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and champion of human rights.


But Suu Kyi isn’t silent on these issues due to lack of concern. Her position is still very fragile and she’s walking a political tight rope, trying to build on a very flimsy framework of democratic functioning. She isn’t at all in a position to take daring political risks with a xenophobic, power-hungry military set up watching her every move, while dealing with a very conservative and traditional voter population.

Just last month, Burma’s parliament voted against proposed constitutional amendments, ensuring that the military’s veto power remains intact and Suu Kyi cannot become president even if her party wins the November elections. Sources of the USDP, the ruling party, said that party chairman, Speaker of the Parliament Shwe Mann was deposed and put under police guard because he was close to Suu Kyi. She is absolutely in no position to exert pressure on the ruling party, which is an extension of the military.

Even before the Rohingya issue became a priority concern, there were over half a million exiles in Thailand. The Burmese Migrant Workers Education Committee supports over 10,000 children in the border living in shelters. The Hsa Thoo Lei Learning Centre in Mae Sot supports nearly 800 orphans who have lost their parents to the junta. Among other outstanding human rights issues, the junta has to face legal action over the genocide and forced slavery of the Karens, brutal suppression of all opposition and the inhuman disregard of Cyclone Nargis victims. But a scenario where Suu Kyi and her potential government can put former junta members on trial is still a fantasy and those who entertain such fantasies now need to do a firm reality check.

Her first priority when her party gains power in November, which is very likely, would be to strengthen grass roots democracy at village level while building up key institutions like the judiciary, the media and the civil service along democratic lines while distancing power from the army and its wealth-based, corruption-ridden political juggernaut. This is a formidable task in a country which hasn’t known any democratic decencies since 1962. Parallel to this, she has to strengthen her own official status within the country, rising from being the perennial victim to an empowered citizen with full rights. For example, she wasn’t allowed to phone her sons in England prior to her release, and they were not allowed to visit her even after that. Suu Kyi has lived with such draconian curtailing of freedoms for over two decades.

First, some salient facts about the history of modern Burma. Her father, the charismatic Gen. Aung San, led the nationalist struggle against colonialism. Initially an ally of the Japanese, he later turned against them and aided British forces with his Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL). After the victory, he negotiated with Clement Atlee’s Labour government for independence. But he and almost his entire cabinet were killed in July 1947, just before the transfer of power, by nationalist rival Un Saw.

The AFPFL ruled Burma after independence in 1948 with U Nu as Prime Minister. He was a co-founder of the Non-Aligned Movement along with Nehru, Sukarno and Nasser. During 1958, Gen. Ne Win formed a caretaker government during a political crisis. In 1960, U Nu’s promotion of Buddhism as the state religion angered the military, and Ne Win took over in 1962 with a coup.

He abolished the federal system and turned Burma into a single-party socialist state with a muzzled press. This effectively began the junta rule which continued, in one form or another, till 2011. In 1962, the brutal Ne Win turned nominally civilian and ruled by a People’s Assembly headed by him and other generals.

In 1975, minority groups in distant regions such as the Karens, Kachins and the Shan formed the opposition National Democratic Front, starting guerrilla wafare against the army. In 1981, Ne Win stepped down, naming a retired general called San Yu as president. In 1982, a new law was passed designating people of non-indigenous backgrounds as ‘associate citizens,’ thus effectively banning them from holding public office.

In 1987, a currency devaluation wiped out most people’s savings and sparked riots. In 1988, thousands were killed in protests led by students demanding democracy. In response, the junta formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and declared martial law in 1989, putting thousands in jail. Suu Kyi and leaders of her party were put under house arrest and the country was renamed Myanmar.



" He abolished the federal system and turned Burma into a single-party socialist state with a muzzled press."



The new strongman Gen. Than Shwe ruled the country with an iron fist. The biggest impediment to his dictatorship was Suu Kyi. The junta didn’t dare kill her, though she was lucky to survive – Luc Besson’s film ‘Lady’, an accurate account of those chilling years, shows how a decent officer refused to gun her down as she defied a marching order. That officer was personally killed by Than Shwe.

The junta did their best to silence her and destroy her party and key supporters. Suu Kyi, just two years old when her father was murdered, led her father’s party the National League for Democracy (NLD) in opposition. She was determined to keep her father’s vision alive. British scholar Michael Aris who became her husband wrote that she collected every book she could find on him while studying at Oxford, with the result that “in the daughter as in the father there seems an extraordinary coincidence of legend and reality, of word and deed.”

But it’s the military’s brutal crackdown in 1988 which put iron in her soul. As Aris writes: “And yet prior to 1988 it had never been her intention to strive for anything quite so momentous. When she left Oxford to care for her mother she had been set on writing a doctoral thesis on Burmese literature for London University.”

In 1990, when the NLD won the general elections by a huge majority, the junta declared the result null and void, banned the party, jailed its key members and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. In 1990, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. She was represented by her elder son Michael because she was not allowed to travel to Oslo. In 1992, after Gen. Than Shwe took over, conditions became even more harsh. In the proposed new constitution published in 2008, 25% of assembly seats were allocated for the military and Suu Kyi was banned from holding the presidency.

She languished in house arrest for seven years, with only two maids for company, until the junta surprised the world by suddenly freeing her in November 2010. But it was hardly Burma’s ‘Mandela moment’ as it was hailed around the world. It was rather a politically clever move by the generals. They had consolidated their power by arranging for the USDP, packed with business cronies, to win rigged elections earlier in the year, which the NLD boycotted on the grounds that it was unfair and undemocratic. 

NLD vice chairman Tin Oo spent a decade under house arrest. Hundreds of activists spent years in jail under inhuman conditions. Some died due to torture and neglect. If one adds the frequent extensions of detention which Suu Kyi suffered, including a three-year-suspended jail term slapped on her when an American visited her island home without authorization, she has spent much of her time as a politician in Myamar in detention.

The junta hoped to break Suu Kyi’s spirit. She would then be quickly forgotten. It almost worked. Her unexpected release was a carefully calculated move which enhanced the junta’s image and sidelined Suu Kyi’s party. She was released under severely retraining conditions. For example, her party remained de-registered under a new registration law. However, with the same unflagging spirit which made it possible for her to survive over two decades of political repression and misfortune, she set about reviving her party. Together with her lawyer and party spokesman Nyan Win, she met party officials who struggled to keep the NLD network alive during the bleakest years, and lodged an objection to the high court that her party’s dissolution was “not in accordance with the law.”

Today, the NLD is revived and will contest the national elections in November. But both Suu Kyi’s and the party’s position is still very fragile. All important government posts are held by oligarchs and cronies favoured by the military junta. Suu Kyi spoke out on behalf of jailed pro-democracy activists the day she was freed. Many are still jailed. 

Citizens still live with fear in a country which, despite superficial changes, is still very much a police state. Conditons improved slightly after the appointment of Thein Sein as president of a nominally civilian government in 2011. He appointed the moderate Aung Kyi, the military’s negotiator with Suu Kyi, as information minister. But Thein Sein is hardly a moderate. He was instrumental in having Shwe Mann, himself a former general and ally of Suu Kyi, from his post as party chairman.

Today, four private newspapers are allowed after a ban of nearly fifty years. But Suu Kyi’s political power remains potential than actual. If we make any comparison with Sri Lanka, her task (provided she is allowed to become president, which looks unlikely) will be a hundredfold more difficult than what Chandrika Kumaratunga had to face after two decades of UNP rule or Maithripala Sirisena’s and Ranil Wickremasinghe’s task today after a decade of chaos under Mahinda Rajapakse.


" When the NLD won the general elections by a huge majority, the junta declared the result null and void, banned the party, jailed its key members and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. "


Suu Kyi has had to weigh the realities of Burma’s politics against the expectations of her pro-democracy supporters. She was criticized earlier this year when, during a five-day visit to China, she chose not to criticize Beijing for jailing China’s Nobel Peace Prize winning writer Liu Xiaobo. 

As Nicolas Farrelly, a south-east Asia expert from the Australian National University, commented, it was unrealistic to expect a “pragmatic and astute” Suu Kyi to criticize her hosts. “She’s a politician. The sooner we all start appreciating her as a political figure, I think the better it will be for everybody, including for her and for her team.”

Sean Turnell, an expert in Burma’s economy from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, said: “I think she would be anxious to get across the message that she is willing to be a friend of China and that there is nothing for them to fear from her coming to prominence or even becoming president at some point.”
The daughter of former strongman Than Shwe had done several billion dollars worth of business with China. The power makers and brokers in Burma are members of this clan. The November elections could change that, but not in any dramatic manner and certainly not imemdiately. Real change will be slow, hard and precarious. We have seen in Sri Lanka recently how difficult change can be. It will be much harder in military-managed Burma, where the junta spent half the country’s earnings on the army. There, too, China is a key player.

Suu Kyi is now 70. From the day her father was murdered, she had learned to live with a dangerous politics. People in Sri Lanka have no idea what that’s like, though we had a foretaste of that during the Rajapakse years. Untill Than Shwe stepped down, the brutal and paranoid Burmese junta compared well with North Korea, only marginally better in some aspects. It takes us a stretch of the imagination for us to understand the fears and concerns of the average, pro-democracy Burma citizen – and of their hope and icon Suu Kyi, who must balance her innate idealism and humanism with the need to survive politically in a world where she has no powerful political friends within the country.

China is the biggest player in this context and is a blessing to any regime with a bad human rights record. Burma’s neighbours are more concerned about the country’s huge natural gas and oil wealth than in human rights. India should have stood up to the Burmese junta, but New Delhi has been placating it rather than asking any awkward questions. This made Suu Kyi especially angry since her parents had close ties with India in the good old days. 

Sri Lanka is not in a position to influence Burma politics but even a mild protest at the UN could have helped Suu Kyi’s cause. But this never happened even though this country has been ruled by two women. The Rajapakse regime went out of its way to forge a close friendship with Burma. The Rathupaswala protests were crushed by using the army following the Burmese model.

In fact, no Asian country except Japan has taken up her issue strongly, which is rather shameful. Her biggest international supporters and friends are from the West. Suu Kyi believes in appealing to reason and intellect, in short supply in the opportunistic world of politics. In 2011, when her campaign against the junta lost momentum, she chose to appeal to reason by delivering two lectures on the BBC’s Reith Lectures programme. She believed that argument and reasoning could inject new energy into her supporters while making it clear that she did not entirely rule out violent protest, saying: “I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons.”

The lectures were recorded by a small BBC team who entered Burma illegally because she was not allowed to broadcast in Burma. The tapes were then smuggled out, and Suu Kyi answered questions live via satellite phone, installed by BBC News. Her struggle is just beginning. Suu Kyi is one of the great Asian political figures of our times. But she cannot achieve miracles working against such odds, and her silence on the Rohingya issue must be seen in that context. She is immensely resourceful. During her house arrest, the paranoid military did not allow even technicians’ visits when the need arose. She had to learn how to repair everything from the lights to plumbing. 

She will use that resourcefulness to improve life for her people once her party gains power. But she will have to negotiate political mine fields, making enormous sacrifices for very small gains. There are many Burmese citizens and groups very concerned about the plight of minorities, including the Rohingyas. But extremists hold the political cards with the military’s backing, and moderate elements need to tread very carefully with hardly any clout.
Suu Kyi is a thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan and intellectual woman, a rare phenomenon in modern politics, especially in superstition-ridden Asia. No contemporary Western woman politician can even come close in stature (except Hillary Clinton, though not on the intellectual side). Like her great Indian predecessor Jawharlal Nehru, she is checkmated by powerful retrogressive forces. Nehru was checked by India’s overwhelming poverty, illiteracy and superstition. Suu Kyi is checked by corruption, hardline politics and misinformation. 

She still remains slim, testimony to her spartan lifestyle and a shining example to Sri Lanka’s overweight, self-serving, arrogant and badly educated politicians who look upon body fat as an indicator of political power and social stature. Suu Kyi’s drawn face and figure is a tribute to her Spartan lifestyle and personal sacrifices. The military junta robbed Suu Kyi of her youthful potential, hoping that she would either fall sick or go mad. She outplayed them with sheer resolve, and now has about a decade left in active politics. 



" Burma’s parliament voted against proposed constitutional amendments, ensuring that the military’s veto power remains intact and Suu Kyi cannot become president "



Given the enormity of the task, it’s a very short time. If she’s not to turn out to be another tragic figure of Asian politics – along the lines of a Mahatma Gandhi rather than Indira Gandhi or Benazir Bhutto – she must engage in astute politics, and that would mean disappointing and displeasing many who expect her to achieve miracles. But it would be best to end this article with her own words:

“There is an instinctive understanding that the cultural, social and political development of a nation is a dynamic process which has to be given purpose and direction by drawing on tradition as well as by experiment, innovation and a willingness to evaluate both old and new ideas objectively. This is not to claim that all those who desire democracy in Burma are guided by an awareness of the need to balance a dispassionate, sensitive assessment of the past with an intelligent apprehension of the present. But threading through the movement is a rich vein of the liberal, integrated spirit which meets intellectual challenges with wisdom and courage. There is also a capacity for the sustained mental strife and physical endurance necessary to withstand the forces of negativism, bigotry and hate. Most encouraging of all, the main impetus for struggle is not an appetite for power, revenge and destruction but a genuine respect for freedom, peace and justice.




The question for democracy in Burma is the struggle of a people to live whole, meaningful lives as free and equal members of the world community. It is part of the unceasing human endeavour to prove that the spirit of man can transcend the flaws of his own nature.”
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  • Paths Sunday, 11 October 2015 04:26 PM

    AUNG SAN SUU KYI is the doter of General Aung San.Her spartan lifestyle led to her SLIM figure.She has RESPECT for Freedom, Peace

    chandima Saturday, 10 October 2015 02:53 PM

    where ever the muslims are, if they are practicing expansionism, systematic take over, its a matter of that countries historical majority to take preventative steps. you should be more focus on writing about rights violations in middle eastern countries , by their employers, etc. My question is why no one is questioning cut-throt policies practice by muslims (regardless of the countries they live) are not being criticized or question. Myanmar has the right to defend its religion, traditions,culture and its people from invading ideologies which are not harmonious with the existing values. All humans should be treated with dignity and respect, however all the respect and dignity should be given back as you receiving it, where Muslim practicing a vulgar ideology saying all non believers should go to hell thus its no wonder they receive backlash all over the world.


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