Essay: Beyond Burma's beautiful first lady of democracy

Essay: Beyond Burma's beautiful first lady

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi"I don't have anything against them personally, the people at the gate. It is just what they represent that I am fighting against. We will just have to teach them the virtues of democracy. Anybody can be taught this. It's just that some people are slow learners." 
- Aung San Suu Kyi, Letter to Daniel: Dispatches from the Heart by Fergal Keane

A light in the attic, the darkest of attics you can imagine – where there has been no free press, no legal system to challenge the state, no political freedom and where dissidents and their associates can disappear overnight into military captivity – Aung San Suu Kyi has become the swan-like figurehead of the democratic movement in Burma (aka Myanmar). 

Her life's mission: to foster a legitimately democratic government thereby breaking free of the country's oppressive totalitarian military regime. It has partly come to pass, with the political reform process beginning with the election of a nominally civilian government (backed by the military) in November 2010. 

In the April 1, 2012, by-elections, she won a parliamentary seat, and her party 43 of the 45 seats in the lower house (parliament consists of more than 600 seats in total). Aung San Suu Kyi is in talks with reformist President Thein Sein and "the architects of political reconciliation" to discuss democratisation, government and the national peace process. 

Like Suu Kyi, the international community is welcoming of reform, but sceptical.  

Australia's foreign minister Bob Carr has announced that Australia will lift travel and financial restrictions on 260 Burmese nationals, including President Sein, civilians and reformists in the government (serving military figures and individuals of human rights concern will remain on the list), while making moves towards "normalised trade ties" and maintaining an arms embargo.

"I think there are prospects for change in Burma and I think it is right for the rest of the world to respond to those changes," said British Prime Minister David Cameron, the first Western head of government to visit the country in decades, while announcing a softening of sanctions.

"Of course, we must respond with caution, with care. We must always be sceptical and questioning because we want to know those changes are irreversible... I think it is right to end the sanctions with the exception of the arms embargo."

The British government, who ended colonial rule in Burma in 1948, can see the economic advantage in opening up trade with Burma for British companies like BP. For her part, Suu Kyi is reticent to be over-excited. "I support the idea of the suspension of sanctions rather than the lifting of sanctions," she said.

The once little-known opposition leader, daughter of the late military leader Bogyoke Aung San and head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi became the first Asian woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 in recognition of her struggle against Burma's repressive military dictatorship. 

"As my father's daughter, I felt I had a duty to get involved," she told the New York Times of the launch of her political career in Burma. 

It was 1988 and she had returned home from abroad to look after her ailing mother. In the spring, an uprising led by student demonstrators against the inept leadership of dictator General Ne Win had occurred, leading to hundreds of deaths. His government was replaced, but by an equally repressive government. The protest movement grew. Government soldiers killed 3,000 people in five days. 

Suu Kyi gave her first public speech on August 26, 1988. It spoke of the need to restore human rights and the right to hold free elections. It ignited a movement long marked by frustrated antipathy. They had found a leader. By summer 1989, she had been put under house arrest by the ruling SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council).

Her brave struggle has come at significant cost. 

Her Cuban born husband, Michael Aris, whom she met at Oxford University (she studied politics, philosophy and economics; he was a Tibetan scholar), died of prostate cancer in 1999 on his 53rd birthday, while she was under house arrest. He had been refused passage into Burma to see her, and she felt that if she had left Burma she would not be able to return. 

They married in 1972 but didn't live together for more than a decade. During her time under house arrest, they enjoyed one Christmas visit. Their sons, Alexander and Kim, stripped of their Burmese citizenship, were seldom allowed to visit her. 

Before they had wed and settled in England, where she did post-graduate work in Burmese history and wrote a biography of her father, she had articulated her deep ties to Burma and its people in letters she wrote to Aris during their courtship, some included in Aris' book, Freedom from Fear

"I only ask one thing", she had written him, "that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them." 

Aris supported his wife's quest, spending the majority of his time representing her in the international community. He was uncompromising in protecting his wife from the extremes of the regime by limiting personal publicity, but openly questioned the moral credentials of the junta.

"Every day of the week in Burma's official media, Suu is vilified, calumnied, slandered, taunted, ridiculed and insulted. In the cowardly way adopted by soldiers who have lost their sense of honour and dignity she has no right of reply," he said.

The military junta who have controlled the country since the coup of 1962 is a brutal beast quite different to the one Suu Kyi's father, Thakin Aung San, founded after securing the country's independence from Great Britain after World War II. Aung San had been part of the All Burma Student Movement to emerge from the University of Yangon in the 1930s. 

With Marxist foundations, the Student Movement led strikes against the imperial British education system. Their success in bringing about major reforms helped to give Aung San, fellow leader Thakin Nu and their nationalist compatriots the confidence to spearhead liberation from the British colonists. But there were compromises and negotiations to be made. 

After being arrested by the British colonial government and escaping by disguising himself as a Chinese crewman, he was arrested by the Japanese with whom he negotiated against the British. He returned to Yangon, established the Burmese Liberation Army (by that time trained by the Japanese in guerrilla warfare), and with the Japanese drove the British out of Yangon. 

British, Indian, Chinese and American troops suffered tens of thousands of casualties (there are 27,000 Allied soldier graves in the Htaukkyan cemetary near Yangon), and so too did the Burmese. In their retreat, 30,000 British-Indian army soldiers were slain by the Japanese. There were also thousands of civilian casualties. 

The Japanese helped establish a government in Burma subordinate to the Imperial Japanese Army, declared "independent" by August 1943. Aung San was declared minister of defence, and Dr Ba Maw was appointed head of state, but the Burmese nationalists weren't pleased with the arrangement. Aung San established contact with the Allies, and in March 1945 defected, along with his 10,000-man army, to the Allies. 

Yangon was recaptured by the British, who wanted to defend the trade route between India and South East Asia, on May 3, 1945, with the support of some of Burma's ethnic minority groups and Aung San's "Patriotic Burmese Forces" (he also founded the People's Volunteer Organisation or PVO). 

Burma had been devastated but the war gave them the confidence to seek nominal self-government as the power of the British weakened.

Britain remained in power until September 1946, when worker's strikes brought the country to a standstill. The colonial government turned to Aung San and his Anti-Facist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) for help. While the strike ended in October, the AFPFL took the initiative, presenting a list of demands to the British government, including total independence by 1948.

Burma got its independence, but there were concerns for the nation's ethnic minorities who were in conflict with the Bamar, the dominant ethnic group. Aung San met with minority representatives and the result was a unanimous resolution that all ethnic groups would work together with the Burmese interim government to achieve independence of the minority states within 10 years.

The future looked promising. In July 1947, after winning the majority of seats in the national election for a Constituent Assembly,  Aung San and six of his ministers were assassinated as they drew up the new constitution. U Saw, who had been prime minister of the last pre-war colonial government, was convicted of instigating the murders and executed for his crimes.   

Aung San's former All Burma Student Movement co-leader, Thakin Nu, was asked by the British colonial government to reprise Aung San's role. He became prime minister in 1948 and the Union of Burma became an independent nation. The first three years of independence were marked by civil unrest, the militarisation of daily life and economic disaster as the military sucked on resources and became more powerful. 

Lieutenant General Ne Win, appointed commander-in-chief of the armed forces and afterward minister of defence, used his power to discharge ethnic minority groups, such as the Kayin, from the army and give all the high-ranking military posts to the ethnic Burmese. Meanwhile, prime minister Nu was forced to appoint a caretaker government, headed by Ne Win, after splits within the party emerged. Under further strain, the Nu government was easily overtaken by a New Win led coup in 1962.

Since then, the military-led state has dominated government, commerce, industry and social life under a program of constitutional authoritarianism. As part of The Burmese Way to Socialism manifesto, it decentralised businesses and took control of the banks. Its foreign policy was one of isolation and neutrality. What's known as the "Four Cuts" operations targeted civilians who supported guerrillas in villages, forcibly relocating them to sites under government control or being shot on sight.

In 1974, the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was born. Ne Win was its president. Loyal disciples have followed; so too have elections and promises of reform, only to be suppressed by the junta. With each uprising, military control has tightened. In 1990, under a new lower-house (Pyithuu Hluttaw) election law, Aung San Suu Kyi was forbidden from participating in elections and put under house arrest. 

Her National League for Democracy (NLD) won 82 per cent of the vote in the May 1990 elections. The military wouldn't have a bar of it. In 1997, the SLORC rebranded as the more internationally friendly "State Peace and Development Council". The "People's Desire" articulated by the state is to: 

- oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges holding negative views;
- oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation;
- oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State;
- crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.

In December 2002, General Ne Win, responsible for the most oppressive regime in Asia, died while under house arrest, as he had been accused of plotting to overthrow the government – essentially, he was eaten by his own lion. But the military regime has remained firmly entrenched.

An economy dependent on "rice culture", and also home to drug warlords dealing in lucrative opiates (which helped to finance communist, separatist and disparate armed groups while causing social issues), Burma has been operating under boycotts by Western nations barring it from World Bank loans and IMF assistance, but has still lured capital from China, Japan, France and other Southeast Asian nations. 

This is a nation that can hardly be called a nation: it is made up of at least 67 indigenous racial groups, has as many as 242 languages and holds significant cultural baggage dating back to pre-Christ times. In Races of Burma, CM Enriques notes the country is, "peopled by so many races that truly we know not how many; nor who they are, nor whence they came." It is a nation operating under a significant historical burden.

The traditional holders of power are the majority Bamar, who originated from southwest China and Tibet, and make up roughly 68 per cent of the population. As the dominant group, who make up the military government, whose language is the national dialect and religion (Buddhism) is also the favoured faith, they are viewed with suspicion and fear by the minority groups (including the Mon-Khmer, Austro-Tai and Karen-nic.   

In his 1995 essay, "An Individual Choice", following Suu Kyi's "official" release from house arrest, Fergal Keane contrasts two meetings: one with a businessman and one with a supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi who had been arrested by the secret police.

"The young man and his fellow prisoners were stripped naked and thrown into a single cell. They were given the barest minimum food required to keep them alive. When one of them complained about this, all were dragged out and thrown into a pigsty and told to wash the animals and to clean up the excrement with their hands. Then the guards were given alcohol and the beatings began again, only this time they were worse."

In 2010, the first elections in 20 years were to be held. The British government condemned the elections on the grounds that they would further entrench military rule behind a facade of civilian government, as the military maintained the power to veto over decisions made by the new parliament and government. The UK called for a peaceful transition to democracy inclusive of minority ethnic voices and respectful of human rights.

Following the elections, a state of emergency was declared. "Voter turnout was reportedly as low as 35 per cent, yet ballot boxes were somehow half full only a few hours into the poll and some of those who did turn up were threatened if they voted against the main junta-backed party," reported the ABC's Zoe Daniel from Bangkok.

"Most of the junta's leaders have resigned from the army to create a so-called civilian government, but Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's key opposition was banned and a quarter of all seats are reserved for the military. More than 2000 political prisoners remain in jail. However flawed, Burma's long-suffering population will soon have the closest thing to civilian government in almost 50 years. The hope is that the few elected, non-junta parliamentarians can achieve change from the inside and with that there may be a new and tougher approach from the international community."

Two years later, Daniel has been allowed into Burma to report on the recent by-elections.

"Much still needs to be done. In particular, real peace needs to be forged with ethnic groups who've been marginalised and brutalised for so long. Constitutional and judicial change needs to happen and free speech needs to go unpunished. But independent thought is leading to actual reform and that may give Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues a real chance of achieving change, even with very few seats."

Activist group Burma Campaign UK has highlighted ongoing human rights abuses, including political prisoners held in jail, rape, killings, abduction, torture, looting and forced labour in the Shan and Kachin states, and the blocking of humanitarian aid.

There is a general election due in 2015. The road ahead is not easy. Though she has galvanised those who wish for democracy, many from the ethnic minorities see her as part of the Burman elite whose hands are bloodied. History is not easily forgotten. But for Suu Kyi, champion of peaceful resistance and loyal to her father's memory, it has never been about what's easy.

"For me, real freedom is freedom from fear," she told Keane. "Unless you can live free from fear you cannot live a dignified human life. It's not possible. It's not the sort of life I want my people to live. So yes, real freedom to me is something that comes from the feeling one has inside... My life is the cause for democracy and I am linked to everybody else in that cause. There is so much to think about, I cannot just think of me." 

Further references:
Myanmar strikes Karen peace deal - The Financial Times
Aung San Suu Kyi meets with Myanmar's president - AP
The Memorial Service for Dr Michael Aris given by Judge Marcus Einfeld
The Karen People: culture, faith and history - The Karen Buddhist Dhamma Dhutta Foundation 
The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time by Deborah G. Felder, Citadel Press 2001
Letter to Daniel: Despatches from the Heart by Fergal Keane, BBC Books 1996
UNHCR: World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Myanmar/Burma : Karen

Girl With a Satchel