J. Brett Whitesell
When we were kids living in the city we would walk around for hours solving all the world’s problems. One day we decided to patrol another neighborhood we hadn’t seen for sometime, and found a huge construction site. We ran down to find what looked like a fifty-foot plywood wall surrounding the entire city block. You could hear the incredible amount of noise on the other side and a gigantic crane with a ball on the end that we knew could only be for one purpose, to tear something down. We had to see in. We ran around the block until we found an open knothole in the plywood, everyone took turns looking into the site.
When it was my turn I got closer and closer until everything behind me disappeared and the world on the other side sucked me in. It was chaos, just pure chaos. Trucks were going in and out, the crane was tearing down the remaining walls of an old building none of us could remember what it was, and foremen were yelling from all corners trying to direct the crane, guide the trucks, and pour the cement. It was amazing how all the people and equipment moved around inside this space without killing anyone. They were building something. We had no idea what it was, but it would be big and exciting. Then a tap on the shoulder and it was someone else’s turn. It never seemed to have the same affect as an adult.
I spent a good bit of time trying to decide a subject for a story about women of strength. My wife and I both studied feminism a great deal. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were written about a lot, and we both admired Rosa Parks immensely. I then considered someone more contemporary like Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton. I might now add Gabrielle Giffords and Jackie Speir to the list. But then I wondered, if given the chance, and I could ask them the same question, who would they pick, who would inspire them now? It would have to be Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Awng San Sue Chee). I have read some of Burma, and heard some of Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches and interviews. The question is how does such a tiny, soft-spoken woman become the icon in the fight for democracy in Burma? Where does she find her strength and perseverance? It wasn’t until I opened the January 29th edition of the Financial Times headlined: ‘The end game is not yet in sight’ that I would begin to understand.
Aung San Suu Kyi had just been released from House arrest for the third time. All tolled she was under house arrest three times, in prison once, and the latest house arrest was extended for eighteen months longer because an admirer decided to swim to her rescue. The FT had obtained an interview at the National League for Democracy headquarters in Burma. The photograph they ran was about a quarter of a page and dead center; she is looking straight at me. I moved closer and closer, everything around me began to disappear, and I found myself staring. Then the harder I looked the more I was drawn inside Suu Kyi. If you looked real close you could see Burma, her Burma. Once on the other side you can hear the excitement of the protesters, the military, and the chaos. They were building something big and wondrously exciting. That would be the point. It is the point! To know Suu Kyi would be to know Burma. Then to understand Burma is to know her father, General Aung San, the revolutionary. That is where she reaches for strength. The three, Aung San, his daughter, and Burma are totally intertwined.
Burma, for centuries, was one of the richest countries in the world. In the early 1800’s the British, already occupying India, invaded and then colonized Burma. The British too recognized, as did other invaders, the rich resources Burma possessed. Geographically Burma held significant strategic and logistical properties as well. India was directly west, China to the north, Thailand to the east, and a long front with the Indian Ocean. They brought in Indian workers to help extract those resources. Chinese workers also began to immigrate and work for the British. There began a hierarchy of populations now on Burmese soil. First, of course the British held all of the governing positions. Next came the Indians followed by the Chinese. All of these groups looked down upon and ridiculed the Burmese.
Prior to British occupation Burma was a country that was virtually all agriculture. There were no cities, and each village was self-sufficient. Central government served no purpose. There was also very little coins minted––it wasn’t necessary. Bartering was all that was needed. It was the British that brought modern technology such as electricity, steamboats on the rivers, the railroad, and the modern postal system. As with all other occupiers in history the British began to step in and on the Burmese a bit too much. For example, as written by James George Scott Sr., in his book Burma: A Handbook of Practical Information, he explains that in 1819 the price of paddy (unhusked rice) for 10 baskets was a bout one rupee. With British technology, and marketing by 1856 the price for 10 baskets skyrocketed to roughly three times that price. This doesn’t sound like much, but for a country that has no monetary system to speak of, controlling and tripling the cost of rice, a main staple, is economically crippling.
Resentment grew fiercer among the people and in 1930 began the Hsay San revolt of poor farmers, also called the “Peasant Uprisings” led by Buddhist monk Saya San. Some even say he was considered a medicine man. A year after the uprising Aung San, coming from an educated and well off family in Burma, would graduate from high school (Yenangyaung) and enter Rangoon University, eventually graduating with a BA in English Literature, Modern History, and Political Science.
While attending Rangoon Aung San would sit on the executive council of the student union and become editor of the student union newspaper. Aung San would write an article attacking a school official titled “Hellhound at Large.” He and other members of the student union would be expelled; among those would be U Nu––president of the student union. Student strikes would follow, with the government backing down and reversing the expulsion. Little did anyone realize that this one incident would lead to Burmese nationalism and the fight for freedom from the British?
According to David Steinberg in his book Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs To Know, by the time World War II had reached Burma Aung San and a handful of Nationalists were trained by the Japanese to help in the fight to push the British out of Burma. After Aung San realized that the Japanese were not going to leave Burma and allow it to become an independent, democratic state, he secretly met with and helped the British repulse the Japanese back out of Burma on the condition that when the war was settled Burma would gain its independence. Between the Japanese invasion and the return of the British forces Aung San would marry Khin Kyi, and have three surviving children. The youngest of those to be born was a daughter named Aung San Suu Kyi. Then in 1947 just prior to becoming the official prime minister of Burma, Aung San and some of his committee members were murdered. Aung San Suu Kyi was only two years old. In 1948 Burma declared their independence without its young revolutionary.
Khin Kyi is then propelled as a national political figure and encouraged to take a diplomatic position in India. Her children would follow. Suu Kyi would finish high school in India and then attend Oxford University in Great Britain where she meets Michael Aris. She goes to New York to finish her graduate degree and instead works for U Thant, U.N. Secretary General at the time. In January 1972 she marries Michael Aris under the condition that if her country, Burma, ever needed her she would have to go. Together they work in Bhutan, India, and Japan. Now with two children Suu Kyi and Michael Aris return to Oxford where Suu Kyi re-enters for studies in an advanced degree.
In March of 1988 she would get that call. Contacted by a friend in Rangoon Suu Kyi was informed that her mother had a stroke. Without hesitation, during a time of tremendous turmoil, she returned to Burma to care for her mother. Initially she would stay away from the demonstrations. On August 8, 1988 (8-8-88) on the 40th anniversary of independence from British occupation, due mainly because of Suu Kyi’s father Aung San, the opposition party takes to the streets. General Ne Win, the ruthless ruling commander of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) resigns and the remaining junta looks at the demonstrations as a country in chaos. To keep the country from being governed by civilians, again the military performed another coup forming the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) claiming to bring peace back to Burma. They answer the opposition in a concise and brutal way. Without conscience, the army opened fire on unarmed civilians, students and monks. Falling to the ground dead were men, women, and children. The soldiers had no mercy on anyone. Some estimates put the deaths as high as 10,000 that year, the junta claims only 440, and most accounts place it at roughly 3,000.
This horribly bloody massacre would propel Aung San Suu Kyi, who had just reluctantly joined the opposition group in forming the National League for Democracy (NLD) as their secretary, to the forefront of the fight for democracy in Burma. To try and stop the military from killing any more civilians on August 26 1988 she stood up in front of an estimated one million people and in her speech would say, “As my father’s daughter I cannot be indifferent to what is going on.” The Testing of Aung San’s daughter’s courage and resolve for a peaceful solution with the military would come in April of the following year. Suu Kyi had just been speaking with people in a nearby village. Her and her followers filled the streets walking back when an army jeep stopped at the other end of the road and six soldiers with rifles poured out, kneeled and aimed their weapons at Suu Kyi and the crowd behind her. The crowd scatters and as Peter Popham remembers in the Independent on November 14, 2010, “When she walked alone down a street in the town of Danubyu, her supporters cowering back on the pavement, towards a line of soldiers poised to shoot her dead – until a more senior officer dashed out and countermanded the order at the last moment.” She would never again leave Burma.
In July of 1989 she would be arrested for “attempting to destroy military unity.” She would be held under house arrest off and on for most of the next two decades. In 1990 from the SLORC came the National Unity Party who, surprisingly, called for open elections. With high-ranking opposition leaders in prison and Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, the newly formed NUP (still working under the direction of Ne Win) assumed the masses would follow the military for peace and calm in the streets. The NLD couldn’t possibly be organized any longer, and it was also a great way to flush out any opposition leaders left on the streets. Still it was a bit bizarre for the junta even to have this thought other than for pure international appearances.
Not only did the junta lose, they would lose in colossal fashion. The NLD won 59% of the popular vote, dividing up the remainder between literally hundreds of contenders, and would control over 80% of the seats (392 out of 485) in parliament leaving the military only 10. Totally enraged, the junta simply ignored the results, detained, arrested, beaten, and/or killed the remaining dissidents the army could find. Suu Kyi “The Lady,” as many called her, remained under house arrest. The military political leaders preferred the term to keep those from connecting her with her father General Aung San. For the next twenty years they would begin a systematic “lock-down” of everything connected to the outside world. Books would be selective or banned, outside newspapers and magazines were also banned. Radio and television would now be under the total control of the state. This allowed the junta to even further reduce this rich and diverse culture down to one of the poorest in Southeast Asia.
For Suu Kyi captivity brought many hardships and sorrow. She would from time-to-time sneak out letters and speeches with words that her people needed to hear. The military let her know that freedom was possible along with accepting permanent exile. She refused and then in 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for pursuing democracy by peaceful means. The determination to stay with her people in Burma, now Myanmar, would be incredibly difficult over the 20 years, missing family birthday parties and many Christmas celebrations. No decision to stay would be harder than on March 27, 1999, when her much devoted husband, who had cared for their two sons, died at the age of 53 from prostate cancer. Michael had petitioned the Burmese military government to allow him to visit one last time but they refused. Instead the government urged Suu Kyi to go to her dying husband. They had not been together since Christmas four years earlier. But they both knew that if Suu Kyi left she would never be allowed back into Burma to help free her people.
After having her detention extended eighteen months due to American John Yettaw swimming across the lake to rescue her––not two weeks before she was due to be released, Aung San Suu Kyi, tells BBC World journalist Mike Wooldridge on Public Radio International’s Changing World documentaries, “Real freedom is freedom from fear. If you can’t live free from fear, you can’t live a dignified life.” The world would celebrate her 65th birthday without her.
November 2010 would be an extraordinary month for Burma. On November 7th Burma/Myanmar would hold its first election in 20 years. While the military were claiming a true democratic process, the NLD encouraged citizens to boycott the election in support for Suu Kyi and real democracy. As it turns out, lacking any foreign journalists or independent monitors, the elections were again considered a “sham.” The U.N., the United States, Britain, many western countries used terms to describe this election as “neither free, nor fair,” the EU states, “grave concern at the continuing practice of arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment or punishment.” President Obama’s comments, while in India, one of the few countries that supported the results, were also very tangible; “It is unacceptable to hold the aspirations of an entire people hostage to the greed and paranoia of a bankrupt regime. It is unacceptable to steal an election, as the regime has done again for all the world to see.”
Six days later, again not allowed to participate in the elections, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from detention. Many writers have spoken to and of Suu Kyi, some of them here. However, it is what Aung San Suu Kyi says about herself, democracy, freedom, and the people of Burma that have the most meaning. Immediately following her release, she speaks with BBC correspondent Allistair Leithead about how many of the people who came to greet her were obviously suffering from many hardships. “They were not thinking of their hardships……just the fact that I had been freed and that was very touching.” In her interview on November 15 with BBC World’s John Simpson, she speaks differently of the military, “I don’t want to see the military falling. I want to see the military rising to dignified heights of professionalism and true patriotism, and to do what the people want. I think it’s quite obvious what the people want; the people just want better lives based on security and on freedom.”
Speaking with Financial Times managing editor in Asia, David Pilling quotes Suu Kyi, “I was brought up to be fond of the military, to believe that everybody in a military uniform was in some form or another, my father’s son.” Concerning the question of democracy she answers, “Sometimes I think that a parody of democracy could be more dangerous than a blatant dictatorship, because that gives people an opportunity to avoid doing anything about it.” They also speak of her release, the NLD’s organizational skills coupled with new technology such as the internet and cell phones, which she just began to use. As to what the democratic movement is doing, she replies, “I am not saying the endgame is in sight or anything like that. But I am saying the movement is gaining momentum.”
In his last interview with Suu Kyi, still under house arrest, in October 2007, British journalist John Pilger asks, “How do you reclaim the power you won at the ballot box with brute power facing you, when the other side has all the guns?” Suu Kyi answers, “Yes, but it is becoming more and more difficult to resolve problems by military means. It is no longer acceptable. What I am saying is that, no matter the regimes physical power, in the end they can’t stop the people; they can’t stop freedom. We shall have our time.”
On 2 May 2012 Aung Sang Suu Kyi made history by not only winning the parliamentary election but taking the oath for the first time.
Why then would great contemporary women like Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher, and Madeline Albright choose Aung San Suu Kyi to hold up and admire? Very few women have ever been placed in the same company with great men such as Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Desmond Tutu. So the next time you see a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi get closer. Get close enough to block out everything else around you. Look real hard, (don’t worry no one is watching) and inside you will see Burma, her Burma and they are building something big, something wonderful.