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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 33

Birthday in Myanmar

by Urvashi Dhamija

Wednesday 8 August 2007

On June 19, a Nobel Laureate and a national heroine of Burma (now named Myanmar), the second largest country in South-East Asia [area-wise], spent her 62nd birthday confined to her home with no means of contact with her family and with only armed guards for company.

In the previous month the ruling military dictatorship of Myanmar turning a deaf ear to the urgings of 60 heads of government, past and present (that included George W Bush, Bill Clinton, Vaclav Havel, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki Moon), had decided to extend her house arrest by yet another year. In fact, for 11 out of 17 years, since her National League for Democracy and its allies won 80 per cent of the votes in the countrywide 1990 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi has been gated and isolated because the junta considers her a threat to “national peace and tranquillity”. The fact of the matter is that the governors of Myanmar continue to be awed by her political appeal and the grim prospect it portends for their future if they loosen their grip on her. In an Open Letter to Daw Suu Kyi carried by the English daily, New Light of Myanmar, on June 10, Gen Tin Shwe wrote that her incarceration was due to her “arrogance”, persistent irresponsibility and failure to “make self-criticism”. In the late 1980s, he noted, she had refused to endorse the Constitution-making effort initiated by the then Army backed government and subsequently when elections were announced, she had spurned an offer to enter into a seat-sharing arrangement when he had personally approached her on behalf of the Peoples’ Democratic Party that, he said, he had “set up”. No doubt, General Tin Shwe conceded, large numbers had voted for her, but that was because of their sentimental attachment to her father, the freedom fighter, Boyoke Aung San. However, in his view, now they were disillusioned and were abandoning her party “en masse”. They, he said, realised that shortage of items of daily use was because the Western countries had heeded her appeal for imposing sanctions against Myanmar.

Suu Kyi’s father, the martyred General Aung San, regarded as one of the most revered national heroes, led the freedom struggle and was the country’s de facto Prime Minister when he was assassinated in 1948 for his beliefs. Suu Kyi is fit to be her father’s daughter in the manner in which she combines cosmopolitanism, humanism and devotion to Buddhism with compelling leadership skills. Some consider her a modern day Gandhi due to her patriotism and ability to “synergise force and restraint”. She studied at Oxford but returned home from England in 1988 to look after her grievously ill mother, a former ambassador to India, and chose to stay on to press for democratic change in a country where the Army-backed dictatorships were in control since the early 1960s and where a resistance movement had begun to develop among young people against the existing government’s one-party socialism. Suu Kyi addressed her first mass gathering outside the mighty Shwedegon Pagoda in 1988 itself.

THERE is a growing body of academic work which has focussed on how the Tatmadaw [Burmese Army] continues to be dominant in politics since the days of Japanese and British occupation even as the role of the military has declined in other countries of South-East Asia since the early 1990s. Friends of Suu Kyi have used the print media and the Internet to draw attention to how in recent times in Myanmar, political detainees are subject to vicious beatings and rape, bound with ropes and forced to crawl on metal and glass pieces. In the last week of June, the Red Cross, which has a reputation for practising excessive diplomatic restraint, accused the military of forcing ordinary people and even children to act as porters in danger prone areas. In the border areas with Thailand access to agriculture plots is sealed by the Army unless there is total compliance. Mrs Laura Bush sees a glimmer of hope in the fact that while existing international sanctions are in place, a new generation of dissidents has recently emerged to push the twin causes of Suu Kyi’s release and a peaceful transition to democracy.

But the fact is that a visitor to Yangon cannot but be struck by the total absence of any signs of unrest and opposition to the present regime in public spaces or any unusual rush suggestive of an impending economic crisis. In addition to a brand new international airport there are high rises and constructions in progress, indicators of how Singapore, South Korea and even India are helping the government to benefit from developing the country’s natural resources even as they help themselves. Queries about Suu Kyi evoke reactions ranging from indifference to only mild concern about her safety. The smug confidence of the regime in marginalising her in public consciousness is evident from the double-page article in the New Light of Myanmar on June 21 which poured ridicule on the suggestion that the Myanmar Women’s Day celebrated every year on July 3 to mark the official acceptance of the goals of the 1995 Beijing Conference relating to women’s empowerment be shifted to June 19. It is interesting that Suu Kyi should have created quite a stir at the Conference by having her views on the role of women in political reform [“to dissipate the darkness of intolerance and hate suffering and despair”] read out from a smuggled tape. Daw Wai Wai Mon wrote that unlike other eminent women patriots she had “made no sacrifices” for the country and had, in fact, only sullied its image of the by marrying a citizen of the nation which had enslaved it. That Michael Aris was a Tibetan scholar who was not allowed to visit and meet with her one last time when he was dying of cancer is another matter.

Suu Kyi once said that it is not power which corrupts, but “fear. Fear of losing power corrupts the oppressor and fear of the oppressor corrupts the oppressed”. This vicious circle can be broken if the ageing Generals feel compelled to negotiate with her on the basis of parity. Myanmar has recently signed an agreement with Russia to develop nuclear power and established diplomatic relations with North Korea. That alone should be sufficient reason for the United States, Europe and the ASEAN to collectively apply the heat.

The author belongs to the Department of Political Science, Miranda House, University of Delhi.

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