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Home > 2021 > The Lady and The Generals | Jonathan Head

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 9, New Delhi, February 13, 2021

The Lady and The Generals | Jonathan Head

Friday 12 February 2021


[Listen to BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent - the report from Jonathan Head on Feb 6, 2021]

BBC Radio, Feb 6, 2021


BBC Correspondent Jonathan Head reports from Yangon, Myanmar:

Aung San Suu Kyi, a leader was once idolised as the champion of freedom, but who, in defending the generals against charges of genocide, was then denounced as a fallen angel.

Myanmar is a fearfully complicated country with a history that is traumatic even by southeast Asia’s turbulent standards. Yet, the rest of the world is unable to see it this way because of the overpowering draw of a woman who is veiled in a mythical aura combining fragile femininity with steely resolve, magnetic charm, with imperious detachment. She was the stuff of fairy tales, holding out alone against an anti-diluvian and brutal military, and eventually cajoling them into giving the Burmese people free election. And in huge numbers, they chose her.

That narrative, however, has been hard to square with the woman who also appeared callously insensitive to the horrors endured by the Rohingya Muslim refugees on her watch. So, many people turned away from Myanmar, appalled that such terrible things were happening in what was supposed to be a story of democratic renewal.

Now we are being asked to re-engage with Aung San Suu Kyi in military custody once more, as she was for so many years. I see mighty debates amongst Burma-watchers whether she should be supported again as the symbol of her people’s democratic aspirations or not, because of the many undemocratic impulses she showed as the country’s de facto leader.

How did we get so focused on this one person in a country of 55 million and in a region where there are so many wilful tales of injustice that deserve our attention?

Partly, it is about timing. When Aung San Suu Kyi first emerged as a political figure in 1988 on what was supposed to be a short trip from Britain, where was living with her British husband and two sons, Burma, as it was then called, was little known, trapped in military-imposed isolation. The terrible repression of the protest movement she led and the start of her long incarceration coincided with the collapse of communism in Europe and the rise of a new world order in which it was felt that western or UN interventions could right many of the world’s wrongs. She was awarded the Nobel peace Prize in 1991, just the year of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and it was shard not to see similarities in their dignity and fortitude.

Like Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi’s long period of isolation under house arrest meant that few got to know her well and the world instead projected an idealised version onto a complex and difficult personality. She came to embody the optimistic belief that the ‘arc of history’, the memorable phrase used by President Obama, whose visit to Myanmar was the high point of Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation, was bending inevitably towards democracy and freedom.

Fast forward to this year and all that optimism has long since dissolved. In the disappointments in Afghanistan and Iraq, in a global financial crash, in bitterly polarised politics and now in the middle of a pandemic, few believe anymore in the kind of miracle that Myanmar’s transition to democracy was once thought to be. The United Nations Security Council, the embryonic world government that it never was, has mustered a statement of concern over Myanmar which failed even to mention the coup, the illegal overthrow of an elected government.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now being charged with the laughable offence of possessing illegal walkie talkies. That will be enough for the junta, though, to disqualify her from the new election it is promising to hold eventually. They have done this to her before.

But she is now 75 years old. If she manages another political incarnation, the generals are betting that she will no longer be the resolute figure they’ve been unable to beat for so long.

And, perhaps, it is time for all of us, including the party she founded and has dominated for more than 3 decades, to let go of the woman they still call ‘Mother Suu’ and ‘The Lady’, and to seek younger personalities who can chart Myanmar’s future.

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