Recently, I returned to Burma/Myanmar.
The Lady, as she’s known there, was a topic that once could only be spoken of in whispers—now, she plays an active, public role in her nation’s life. She has courageously championed democracy and human rights throughout her life, but she paid a stiff price by spending almost 15 years under house arrest. She was the transformative figure in Burma/Myanmar who combined the nonviolent vision of Gandhi and King with the determined clarity Mandela showed during his long imprisonment. Over the past few visits to Burma/Myanmar, I’ve been delighted to see Suu Kyi win a seat in the Parliament and be covered in the press. Hopefully her input will be valued in shaping a new future for her country.
Burmese Visionary for Liberation
Aung San Suu Kyi is a figure to Burma similar to Nelson Mandela in South Africa. She was a leader and key visionary for a liberation struggle in her country. She was imprisoned or under house arrest for many years. After release, she was elected to Parliament. However, her story also has some significant dimensions of interfaith learning and unfinished business.
Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence during the brief democracy uprising in Burma in 1988. (Burma’s name was changed formally by the military dictatorship to
Myanmar, but many democracy advocates, ethnic minorities and the U.S. government still refer to the country as Burma.) During the month of demonstrations before the massive military crackdown that re-imposed military dominance, Suu Kyi (pronounced sue she) was the main speaker, galvanizing the crowds with her speeches and her presence.
She bears the name of her father, Aung San, the general who led the independence struggle in Burma against the British. On the verge of independence, Aung San was assassinated. His daughter was only 2 years old, at the time. But, the late Aung San remains a hero in the hearts of most Burmese. Until 1988 Suu Kyi had a relatively quiet life, growing up in her well-to-do family, living in India and England. She studied at Oxford, married a British scholar and became a scholar herself while raising a family.
Her widowed mother served as Burma’s ambassador to India during Suu Kyi’s high school and early college years. There she was exposed to the life and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. She explored his work related to the anti-colonial struggle, comparing Gandhi to her honored father. In her studies she noted especially how, while remaining in his Hindu tradition, Gandhi had the intellectual flexibility to learn from and accept elements of other traditions that could fit into his ethical understanding and strengthen his work.
As a scholar, then as a democracy activist, Suu Kyi took the teachings of nonviolent resistance in Gandhi and the Christian Martin Luther King, Jr. and welded them into the non-elitist philosophy of Buddhism to build a broad-based sense of a movement for freedom. She also connected to Buddhist teachings about education, often focused in the monastery, as the way to come to enlightenment.
A central lesson Suu Kyi learned from Gandhi was how to deal with fear. In facing the overwhelming might and brutality of the Burmese military, dealing with fear would be a critical challenge, a challenge picked up in the title of her book Freedom from Fear. Jawaharlal Nehru’s description of Gandhi was especially meaningful to her:
The essence of his teaching was fearlessness and truth, and action allied to these, always keeping the welfare of the masses in view. Looking at the struggles of her own people she wrote,
A people who would build a nation in which strong, democratic institutions are firmly established as a guarantee against state-induced power must first learn to liberate their own minds from apathy and fear. Another Hindu, Rabindranath Tagore, gave her a special image in his poem Gitanjali in which he spoke of a state,
… where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.
In an action that has become legendary for the people of Burma and other nonviolent activists around the world, Suu Kyi directly confronted the Burmese Army. Defying a military ban on her political activity, she was on a campaign tour for the parliamentary election called by the military, running as a candidate with her National League for Democracy. Soldiers under the command of a captain knelt down to take aim at her. Suu Kyi motioned her followers to get off to the side of the road while she continued walking straight toward the guns aimed at her.
It seemed so much simpler to provide them with a single target than to bring everyone else in, she wrote. The order to fire was halted, and she walked through the line of soldiers. In July 1989 Suu Kyi was arrested. Despite having their leader under detention for months, the NLD overwhelming won the election in May 1990, but the military refused to let the elected parliamentarians be seated. Hundreds of NLD members were arrested and others fled into exile.
Under house arrest since 1989 with periodic short releases, Aung San Suu Kyi has remained steadfast and fearless in her nonviolent discipline and call for a democratic government in Burma. She repeatedly refused offers to leave the country, knowing she would never be allowed back in by the military. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but her husband had to be the one to receive it on her behalf in Oslo. (She finally did deliver a Nobel lecture in 2012 and you may want to visit the Nobel website to see a video of that talk.)
In 2010 after a constitution was approved that established a democratic form of government that was still under heavy military control, the new government released Suu Kyi. She ran for a seat in the lower house of Parliament during by-elections in 2012, winning handily. She recently announced that she will contest the presidential election in 2015.
UPDATE, November 2017
Aung San Suu Kyi came under severe criticism for her silence and then support of the government during the Rohingya crisis. The Rohingya people in the southern Rakhine province have been victims of discrimination and targets of sporadic government and mob violence for the past few years, sometimes led by robed militant Buddhist monks. In 2017 a Rohingya insurgent attack on a police post that killed a number of policemen sparked more extensive violence against the Rohingyas. Many people were slaughtered and villages burned. Hundreds of thousands fled to Bangladesh.
Among those who raised their voices of concern was fellow Nobel Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa. He wrote an open letter calling for her to break her silence. He wrote, “My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
As of this update, Suu Kyi is visiting the Rakhine province, though whether she will get much exposure to the Rohingya perspectives and experiences remains to be seen.
Click here for the BBC report on her visit.