by Dr. Neric Acosta
Her face bears some of the weariness of close to two decades of detention, but it still exudes an uncommon serenity and strength. Her diminutive sarong-wrapped frame belies a quiet, if fierce, dignity, made emblematic by the spray of bright flowers she always plants on pulled-back hair. Upon her persona of feminine courage and moral clarity a whole nation rests its hopes for democracy and a secure future – away from the decades-long nightmare of military junta rule that has made what was once one of Southeast Asia’s most prosperous countries the poorest and most repressed.
She is to millions of her countrymen simply called “The Lady.” But to the brutish junta of Burma, she is everything they are not. She is the biggest threat to their continued rule and quite singularly represents a people desperately yearning to be free.
She is Aung Sang Suu Kyi, only daughter of General Aung San, Burma’s independence hero, who led his country out of British colonial rule but was assassinated not long after Burma’s gained its independence in 1948. To the world she is the 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate who in 1990 led the National League for Democracy to an unprecedented victory by winning over 90 percent of the seats in national parliament. The junta, stunned by a massive display of people power, cancelled the elections and returned the country to the path of a closed society, throwing Suu Kyi and thousands others to jail.
In the last 18 years, Suu Kyi had been detained and locked up in her lakeside home in Rangoon, deprived of access to the world, including her own family. She has had no Internet connection, television or contact with her party colleagues. When her husband, British academic Michael Aris, was dying of cancer a few years ago, he and their two sons were barred from visiting Burma to be by her side. To this day Suu Kyi has yet to meet her own grandchildren.
This week, however, the world rejoiced in her release from detention. There was celebration to be sure, but cautious optimism as well, considering how the junta conducted largely fraudulent and sham elections early this month – blatantly excluding Suu Kyi’s NLD and guaranteeing 25 percent of parliament seats for the military. Was Suu Kyi’s release conditional, and simply a crude public relations stunt for a ruling junta to create a façade of democratization? Or was this turn of events a hopeful sign, at last, of change for a long-suffering Burma?
Only time will tell. In a BBC interview Suu Kyi eloquently spoke of conciliation and peaceful collaboration. Asked if she would want the regime to fall, she answered without a hint of rancor and with great charity: “I do not wish to see the military regime fall, but for it to rise to more dignified heights of doing what is best for democracy and the aspirations of the people of Burma.” It was Suu Kyi who had once said it most cogently about power, revising Lord Acton’s famous quote, and declaring that in truth “it is not power that corrupts but the fear of losing it.”
It is indeed the fear of losing power that drives tyrants to oppress their own people and stand in the way of their nation’s potential. It was fear of losing power that drove a terrified junta to ruthlessly deny the people the democratic mandate they had entrusted to the NLD in 1990. It is the same fear that made the generals brutally crush the massive protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007 against rising commodity prices, food shortages and increasing repression.
Burma’s pained narrative is not unlike South Africa’s – years of oppression by a police state, the clash between the pragmatic requirements of realpolitik and international trade, and the call for sanctions and greater democratization. As with South Africa for most of the apartheid years, some countries have turned a blind eye on human rights violations and the suppression of dissent in Burma because of the extraction of rich natural resources. The natural gas and oil fields, abundant minerals and timber resources of Burma ensure the generals of steady support from China and India, just as South Africa was long a source of copious minerals for the global markets. But domestic resistance and global demand for democracy and human rights fueled the drive for international sanctions and growing multilateral pressure on both countries to open their societies.
And for both nations, the face of such resistance and heroism were individuals who had the ‘largeness of spirit’ – Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years as a political prisoner, and Suu Kyi, who has paid a high price for the principles she has lived by. Like our own Ninoy Aquino, incarcerated for over seven years under martial law and returning from exile to meet his martyrdom in 1983, such large spirits are towering exemplars of humanity, humility and courage, inspiring peoples across the world. Just as a freed Mandela ushered in change for a new South Africa and became its first post-apartheid president -- and just as the Philippines saw the rise of Ninoy’s widow Cory leading ‘people power’ to bring down a dictatorship -- the world awaits with bated breath and prays for Daw Aung Suu Kyi to claim at long last what is her and the Burmese people’s democratic birthright and rightful place in history.
Dr. Neric Acosta is the secretary general of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD). CALD’s Executive Committee recently bestowed the honorary individual membership title to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in its meeting held in Makati City, Philippines, on June 29, 2010. She is the first person to be awarded such title by the organization. The National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), where Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is part of, is a full member-party of CALD. (Photograph: Stephen Shaver/AFP/Getty from guardian.co.uk)