The Lady lives
Twenty years after
she was first put
under house arrest,
Aung San Suu Kyi is
still the inspiration
On my first trip to Burma about a year ago, a young lawyer, in the
cramped safety of an apartment that she shared with her aging parents,
handed me a thumb-sized, silvery mug shot of a youthful Aung San Suu Kyi.
“I could be arrested for carrying this”, she said, with a touch with
mischief. Then she buried the photo back into her cloth bag as fast as
it had shot out. Dissidence, visitors to Burma learn quickly, often
begins with reverence for the embattled opposition leader whom Burmese
refer to, in whispers, simply as ‘the Lady’.
Aung San Suu Kyi burst onto the political stage almost by chance in
the midst of 1988’s mass student-led pro-democracy protests as the
charismatic, eloquent daughter of Burma’s martyred independence hero.
Aung San Suu Kyi
In the years since, she has grown into a lone object of trust among
Burmese, repeatedly credited as the sole figure capable of bridging deep
divides, one fomented since a 1962 coup between the military and the
civilian population, and another between the Burmese majority and the
country’s restive ethnic minorities.
Far from diminishing her star, the military junta’s two-decades-old
tactic of repeatedly isolating her from the masses by confining her to
house arrest has only served to amplify her status as a beacon of
Perhaps, paradoxically, that begins to explain the general inaction
in the streets in response to a protracted trial that is part farce and
part tragedy, a reminder both of the military junta’s penchant for
Kafkaesque distortions of justice and its intransigence in the face of
widespread international condemnation.
To the outside world, small glimmers of hope appeared in the rare
invitations meted out on a select few days to a handful of foreign
diplomats and well-connected local journalists to sit in on the
proceedings. The verdict was due in late July but instead has been
adjourned to August 11, a decision that comes as little surprise to
Burmese who long ago learned to turn their gaze away from the repeatedly
stalled proceedings in disgust.
Burmese, in short, haven’t been fooled.
A small crowd of stalwarts from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the
National League for Democracy (NLD), have braved security forces and the
likely risk of future arrest to hold a silent vigil outside the
blackening walls of Insein prison, where the Nobel Peace Prize laureate
has languished on trial for the past two and a half months.
They are the most visible sign of activists in the ragged and diffuse
semi-underground opposition who have otherwise struggled to foment
demonstrations in the streets or spark small campaigns of symbolic
protest. Some have distributed pamphlets or photos of Aung San Suu Kyi,
and some have tried to trigger spontaneous marches with what they call
‘flash strikes’, unfurling banners in crowded markets in the hopes that
people will follow.
But a visitor would be hard-pressed to find these rare moments of
defiance amid the silent, scarred streets of Burma’s cities.
“People won’t demonstrate because they are too afraid. But if you ask
people who do they believe? Aung San Suu Kyi”, a 27-year-old clandestine
activist, code-named Sun Ray, told me. He had recently returned to
Rangoon from his rural hide-out to launch a ‘yellow campaign’, in honour
of a colour he said was favoured by the Lady, through his own
semi-underground network. A few months earlier, he had splintered off
from the youth branch of the NLD in part because of his belief that the
party lacked force.
The NLD won a landslide victory in a 1990 election, but the ruling
junta denied the NLD’s right to take power, consolidating its
stranglehold on the country, imprisoning NLD politicians, harassing NLD
members and their families, and banning all other opposition parties.
Two decades later, faith in the NLD’s power to effect change has
crumbled under the aging octogenarian caretakers who run the party from
their headquarters in Rangoon. In the past two years, Burmese have
watched them fail to take initiative or react fast during September
2007’s failed monk-led protests and in the aftermath of last year’s
Cyclone Nargis, which killed an estimated 140,000 people while the junta
dragged its feet.
But Aung San Suu Kyi’s staying power manifests in the inspiration she
offers to a new generation of activists who are tired of the stagnant
politics of a rump NLD that in the past 20 years has brought them no
closer to democracy. In her absence from the scene, she has endured as
the rallying point for diffuse networks who have begun to displace
dreams of toppling the junta from the streets with a bid to prepare the
population for a day when the junta falters, through scores of projects
in the cities and rice paddies that tread a fine line between social
work and politics.
That sentiment echoed throughout my recent travels across the
country, where the trial has otherwise met with a mixture of anguish and
deep cynicism. The Lady might get five years or another year, Burmese
residents told me, often with a shrug; she might be punished with
another period of house arrest or a prison sentence (where exactly she
might be sent if convicted of the subject of intense speculation in the
Rangoon rumor circuit). They’ve grown accustomed to expecting the worst.
“The whole country is like a jail”, a 60 year old Buddhist abbot told
me over tea one recent afternoon, as he wiped off the dust from his
spectacles in the dry heat of his Mandalay monastery. “The trial is just
political. We don’t know about it”. To Burmese, he said, it means very
Scarred by the memories of past street protests that ended in brutal
crackdowns, and empowered last year in the aftermath of the cyclone,
when countless Burmese took it upon themselves to dispatch aid to
survivors, Burmese have come to accept a new pragmatism. Change, when it
comes, will depend on a schism within the military leadership.
And the day the junta falters, “the Lady will lead. But we will lead
too. We will organize at the township level”, said a Rangoon doctor who
recently founded an unofficial nonprofit organization that gathers a
shifting crowd of 12 physicians for regular weekend trips to dispatch
medicine and free clinical services in ramshackle villages on the
outskirts of the city.
“For me, I still see her as my leader”, added a 28 year old woman who
works as a teacher for a Rangoon non-profit that runs courses on civic
engagement and governance, “But I don’t believe there is only one
leader. There will be many individuals. I’m not just waiting for her”.
Asked for her thoughts on Aung San Suu Kyi, however, she shut her
eyes tightly and said: “Her dedication, her commitment. She left her
life for it. I tried it. One day, to be in her shoes, I stayed in my
room. On her birthday it was too difficult”.
Amid the shifting caprices of a regime that lacks any legitimacy in
the eyes of its people, Aung San Suu Kyi endures as a constant whose
ideas on non-violent protest and what she calls ‘loving kindness’ carry
weight in a culture that is deeply intertwined with Buddhist philosophy.
Activists, from the most hard-bitten firebrands to aging intellectuals,
long ago assimilated that lesson.
On a recent afternoon, Sun Ray and three activists from separate
youth networks traded talk about change at a restaurant. They spoke of
inspiration coming from Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution; of Otpor, a
Serbian student movement that opposed Slobodan Milosevic; of Nelson
Mandela and Gandhi. Conversation hushed whenever a waiter hovered.
Ironically, Burmese acknowledge that Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to be
tested beyond the burnishing confines of her prison compound. “If your
only influence depends on you being a prisoner”, she once said, in a
conversation with Alan Clements recorded in The Voice of Hope, ‘then you
have not much to speak of’.
I learned of her inspirational power best on a dusty street of mango
vendors in the city of Mandalay, where a physician brought out file
after file filled with the records of patients he had treated through a
non-profit that has been closely watched by agents since 2004. Inside
were snapshots of patients who might once have been sent to a carnival
freak show, a baby with an eye the size of a football, a girl with an
overgrown arm, a man lacerated with skin diseases.
All were advanced cases of easily treatable diseases that had been
left to run their course too far, he said, a sign of the degeneration of
healthcare and the terrible poverty of rural Burmese who rarely think to
see a doctor until they near death. The files, which fill an entire
room, were the best assurance the group had to survive, said the doctor.
After a long conversation about the pathological distress of the country
that carefully sidestepped direct political discussion, he walked me to
the gate of his villa, and then stopped suddenly. Across the road, a
sunset-drenched monk stepped gingerly into a crumbling pagoda.
“Have you read anything by Aung San Suu Kyi?” the doctor asked,
fixing me hard. “She says to use your freedom to help the Burmese become
free”, he said. His eyes filled with tears. ‘We do what we can’.
Courtesy Foreign Policy