Still standing


COME Friday, the world’s most famous prisoner of conscience will turn 64. But there is no cause to celebrate.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s latest gift from the government of Myanmar was another farcical trial designed to extend her detention. On May 14, she was moved from her home on University Road in Yangon, where she has been under house arrest for most of the last 19 years, to Insein prison.

The court’s argument was that, by allowing American John William Yettaw to enter her lakeside residence, she had violated the terms of her house arrest.

Suu Kyi’s plea was that she felt sorry for Yettaw after he swam across Lake Inya to visit her.

Tibetan and Myanmarese exiles participate in a candle light vigil on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, in New Delhi on June 4. Portraits on their banner depict Aung San Suu Kyi and Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama.

This recent travesty is yet another tribulation the Nobel Peace Prize winner has had to endure in her long struggle to bring democracy and freedom to her native country (called Myanmar by its military rulers, but still known as Burma internationally).

Despite a thumping win in the 1990 general elections, Suu Kyi has never been allowed to take office as her country’s rightful leader. During her extended detention, her British husband, Dr Michael Aris, died, and she has barely seen her two sons, Alexander and Kim.

What does this woman really mean to the people of Myanmar today? Is there still purpose in her struggle, or is hers a futile effort?

Aung San Suu Kyi’s family has played a crucial role in her country’s history . Her father was the enigmatic nationalist leader Aung San, who flirted with both communism and fascism in his desire to see Myanmar freed of British colonial rule. But he was assassinated in July 1947, just months before the country gained independence. (He was 32 then and Suu Kyi, only two.)


                                                            Jason Chong

In the years following independence, the country was torn by divisions. In the vacuum left by Aung San, the ruling Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) saw a power struggle between his successors, U Nu and Ba Swe, both of whom served as prime minister. Communist Party of Burma leaders Than Tun and Thakin Soe (whose wife was the younger sister of Suu Kyi’s mother, Khin Kyi) broke with the AFPFL.

Thakin Soe then launched a guerilla war as ethnic tensions flared in the newly independent nation. In the mid-50s Aung San’s older brother, Aung Than, became a parliamentary opposition leader as U Nu’s government barely clung unto power.

When Myanmar’s fragile democracy was crushed by military leader Ne Win in 1962, few knew that it would lead to 47 years (and still counting) of virtually unbroken rule by the military.

Thant Myint-U, grandson of former United Nations Secretary General U-Thant and author of the acclaimed River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, is saddened by the troubled path his country has taken.

“There is a myth that Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 as a peaceful and prosperous country, only to decline mysteriously afterward. The Great Depression impoverished millions in the country, which was then devastated during WWII.

“In 1947, on the eve of independence, General Aung San and almost the entire political leadership were gunned down. A year later, the communist party, the biggest political party in the country, rose up in rebellion, and half the army defected to various ethnic and other rebel militia.

“The Chinese Nationalists then invaded in 1951 and created turmoil in the eastern Shan states. It’s hard to see how any government, democratic or not, could have coped well; I think U Nu’s government did a good a job under the circumstances.

“When General Ne Win took over, he could have taken things in different directions. That he chose to nationalise the economy, expel hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians, and isolate Burma from the outside world – cutting off almost all trade, tourism and investment – was a huge disaster for the country,” Myint-U says. Ne Win officially stepped down in 1988 after violently clamping down on dissent, but continued to control the regime through his successors, Generals Sein Lwin, Saw Maung and Than Shwe. Early 2002, Than Shwe established his own power and placed Ne Win under house arrest in March. The old dictator died eight months later.

Than Shwe also arrested Ne Win’s family members, who tried to return to power, and dismissed ex-Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, whom he felt was too moderate.

But the aging ruler has done little to improve the lot of his people. The Buddhist monks’ pro-democracy protest in September 2007 (which saw thousands of them being gunned down), and Cyclone Nargis (which wreaked havoc in the country in May 2008) only highlight the indifference of the regime.

Thant explains: “These were very tragic events, but Burma’s challenges remain the same: ending 60 years of armed and ethnic conflict, lifting the country from its terrible poverty, and finding a way (to move) from army rule to some sort of popular, civilian government. “The next year or so will be the most important. There is change within the armed forces leadership. Critics say the new constitution and the elections planned for 2010 will not be democratic. But they will represent, at the very least, a massive shake-up of the existing structures of government.

“And all this is happening at a time when relations between the Myanmar army and the 20-odd armed groups in the country are at a watershed. People often see Burma through the narrow lens of politics in Yangon, and forget that the country has been at war since 1948, and that it has nearly two dozen different ethnic-based armies, some fielding over 10,000 troops, backed by armour and artillery.”

With Myanmar now an impoverished police state creaking under the weight of mismanagement, and rife with ethnic-based rebellions, Aung San Suu Kyi remains a beacon of hope.

Interestingly she is the third of Aung San’s five children, three of whom died at a young age. Suu Kyi’s favourite brother, San Lin, drowned in 1953, while her oldest sibling, San Oo, does not support her struggle. Indeed, at one point, he initiated legal action to regain possession of the family home!

Riot police officers take position on their trucks parked in front of the City Hall in downtown Yangon on June 9, after a Myanmar court ruled that Aung San Suu Kyi, on trial for breaching the terms of her house arrest, could only have one defence witness. – AP

Following her return to Burma in 1988, initially to care for her dying mother, Suu Kyi soon became a focal point of resistance to the regime. When the Saw Maung government held an election in 1990, her National League for Democracy (NLD) trounced the army’s proxy party, the National Unity Party, by winning 392 seats to its 10! Now almost two decades on, she shows little sign of giving up her struggle.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat communications director Jonson Chong has a personal interest in Myanmar’s struggle, having spent time in Insein.“In 1998, I was campaign co-ordinator for the human rights NGO, Suaram. In an initiative co-ordinated by Altsean Burma (the Alternative Asean Network on Burma), I went to the country with 17 activists from Australia, the United States, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia (of the two, one was ex-Star journalist Ong Ju Lynn),” Chong recalls.

“We wanted to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Aug 8, 1988, crackdown by the military junta, which killed thousands of pro-democracy protesters. We knew the Burmese would be unable to commemorate the event.

“What we didn’t know was the extent of their fear and paranoia. While discussing what to do upon our arrival, one of us used the word ‘democracy’. The taxi driver got scared! No driver would go near Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, so we had to walk.

“Both sides of the road were cordoned off with barbed wire. We were determined to show the Burmese that we were with them, so we handed out little red cards that read something like, ‘Do not forget those who have sacrificed their lives. We are with you in your struggle for democracy and freedom.’

“We were arrested and detained, first in a military camp and then Insein. After a week, we were tried in a kangaroo court and sentenced to five years’ hard labour. Then the Burmese home ministry decided, in the interest of bilateral relations, to suspend the sentence and deport us instead!”

Having seen the fear engendered by Burma’s regime, Chong’s admiration for Suu Kyi is boundless.

“Her struggle for democracy and human rights is close to my heart. I see her as an equivalent of Nelson Mandela, if not Mahatma Gandhi. This is a physically frail woman who has steadfastly stuck to her people’s cause, making great personal sacrifices along the way. She is subject to constant intimidation. Yet she subscribes to non-violenceand is guided by universal principles of justice. As a Buddhist, I identify with her methods and philosophy.

“I have no doubt that she is as important to the Burmese as King Bhumipol is to the Thais Her people, both at home and abroad, speak of her with reverence. To them she is a hero and a symbol of hope.”

Amnesty International Malaysia campaign co-orinator K. Shan also feels for the people of Myanmar.

“Refugees from the country have been coming here for a long time. At last count, there are about 20,000 of them. But there has been no improvement in conditions for them here. We hope the Malaysian government will look at the problem and find a solution. In fact, Asean as a whole has failed to come forward to protect the rights of these displaced people.”

Still, Shan sees hope in their unwavering dedication of their cause.

“Many of them are young people who have escaped from a climate of oppression, and developed politically here. They are very committed to liberating their country. They see Aung San Suu Kyi as the legitimate leader of the people. In the contest between democracy and authoritarianism, she represents their will and struggle.”

Malaysia-based Nyan Lin Aung, an NLD activist in charge of migrant workers’ issues, says Aung San Suu Kyi is virtually irreplaceable.

“She has a unique position. She is a national leader who leads by example. She stands for justice and is trusted by everyone in the country. She is accepted not just by the Burmese race, but by also the Shan, the Mon and the Karen.

“We are worried about her health. The current regime is afraid of her popularity and always tries to undermine her. They have even tried to infiltrate the NLD. The situation at home is terrible now, but we won’t give up. Even though we had to leave because of the economy and rigid control by the military, we have faith that one day things will change. Aung San Suu Kyi can change our future.”

Burma Campaign for Malaysia leader Tun Tun agrees. “She is a brave woman. She could have lived a safe life in England. But she sacrificed that to fight for our freedom. We all admire her very much. Even when she got money from foreign governments, she didn’t use it for herself. She set up the Aung San Foundation to support the education of the next generation.

“Aung San Suu Kyi believes, and makes us believe that one day, people power will win. Sad to say, there is no good news from our country. People are suffering but the military dictatorship seems unaffected. The current Asean engagement policy is very good for the government, but bad for the people.”

A Myanmar national living in Thailand holds up a poster of Aung San Suu Kyi during a rally calling for her release, in Bangkok last month. – Reuters

Myint-U continues to worry about the direction in which his country is headed.

“Under colonial rule, Burma’s traditional social structure entirely collapsed. The recent increase in its population (of about 55 million) has bred a new class of rural and urban poor. Millions of young people are moving around the country and across the Thai border in search of work.

“Critical social services (like healthcare) are far from adequate. There is no idyllic, timeless Burma, only a country which has undergone massive social and political upheaval, 60 years of civil war and over 30 years of intellectual and economic isolation,” he says.While Aung San Suu Kyi is the undisputed leader of her nation’s struggle for democracy, there is debate over what international organisations can do. Myint-U believes that Myanmar must not be isolated by its neighbours.

“An approach based on economic sanctions and condemnation from afar is a mistake.

“If we look at democratic change elsewhere in Asia, a key factor has been the rise of a strong and confident middle-class. I think Western sanctions, especially the withholding of aid, have undermined the possibility of economic reform and development, and severely weakened the middle class in the country.

“Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in the world. Yet it receives a fraction of what Laos or Cambodia get per capita in development aid. I think countries in the region all have a role to play in helping Myanmar find a way out of poverty. That would be a huge contribution to democracy as well,” he adds.

source: The Star

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