Burma's struggle, Aung San Suu Kyi's role

Kyi May Kaung
14 November 2010

Burmese people across the world, whether in the homeland or in exile, have for the last eighteen years marked today's date with particular sharpness and poignancy. 8 August 1988 was the occasion of a massacre in the capital Rangoon in which the emerging, democratic “people's power” movement of students, workers and citizens was drowned in blood.

The military regime which had ruled the country since 1962 showed that day and in the forty days of nationwide repression that followed (in which perhaps 10,000 people altogether were killed, including 3,000 on the day itself) that its determination to retain its power was absolute. This was confirmed when the ruling junta, having been forced by the strength of the people's will to concede an election in 1990, refused to recognise the overwhelming victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Since the terrible events of “8-8-88”, millions of Burma's people have endured continuing repression, suffering, hunger and hardship under a pitiless dictatorship. But if they do not give in to the temptation of despair, much of the reason lies in the fortitude and constancy of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who in surviving three periods of house arrest (of which the current one is the most severe and isolating) has proved herself an inspiration to her people.

Daw Suu (Daw = “auntie” in Burmese, a prefix of respect for a mature lady) is the daughter of independence hero Aung San and the recipient of the Nobel peace prize in 1991. Today, she will not be able to join her friends and colleagues to mark this melancholy anniversary. But in her Rangoon confinement, she must know that all Burmese who care for their country's freedom and future are connected to each other partly through the living presence of The Lady.

Kyi May Kaung is a Burmese human-rights activist, artist and writer who has lived in exile since 1982. She holds a doctorate in political economy from the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently she worked for the Burma Fund, affiliated to the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the democratic government in exile

A Burmese life

Aung San Suu Kyi is in many ways an embodiment of Burma's (renamed “Myanmar” by the junta in 1989) modern history. Her father, General Aung San, was gunned down with his entire cabinet on 19 July 1947 at the age of 32 by a nephew of his political rival, U Saw. Among the other victims (who came to be known collectively as “the martyrs”) were friends of my parents such as the Mongpawn Sawbwa, and the Shan chieftain Sao Sam Htun.

While the Mongpawn Sawbwa survived in hospital for a few days after the assassination attempt, Aung San died on the spot. It has become part of Burmese people's national legend that when U Saw's nephew burst into the room, Aung San – sitting at the head of the long table – stood up and stretched out his palm outwards, appealing for peace and forbearance. But he was shot point blank and his body slid under the table. A student of my father who was near the secretariat that day rushed to the scene and arrived just in time to witness the bodies being pulled down the stairs, bump by bump.

This painful memory, part of our collective trauma and multiple individual traumas, has been replenished many times since, not least by the military's shootings of civilians in 1962, in 1976 and in 1988.

1988 was the great watershed event that has changed all our lives. But it was not the end to Burmese people's travails; almost two decades after the junta's crackdown, Burma's rulers are still tightening the screws.

At a “birthday party” to mark Daw Suu's 61st birthday on 19 June 2006 in Silver Spring, Maryland, Christina Moon of the US Campaign for Burma showed a photograph of the shaved head of the remains of Thet Naing Oo, a dissident beaten to death on the streets of Rangoon in full view of passers-by. There were two large gashes on the head, which had been crudely stitched together with large black stitches like a centipede's feet.

Suu Kyi was under her first period of house arrest when her National League for Democracy won the 1990 elections, and remained incarcerated until her release in 1995. Each time she was freed, she would test the limits of the junta's tolerance by campaigning throughout the country. On 30 May 2003, thugs calling themselves the Union Solidarity Development Association (Usda) waylaid Suu's party at a place near Depayin, an incident now infamously known as the Depayin massacre. Suu was then taken into “protective custody” by the regime, and held in the notorious Insein prison.

Some NLD supporters survived to tell the Depayin story. I met two who were able to make their way to the Burma-Thailand border and eventually to the United States, where they travelled the country to deliver their testimony. U Khin Zaw told me that an imposter monk, standing near a tree felled across the road, had stopped the line of minivans and cars carrying the NLD leaders at a spot outside Depayin in mid-evening. The “monk” asked that Daw Suu stop and engage in “dialogue”. When Daw Suu replied that it was getting late and they needed to continue on their journey, the attack started.

Requisitioned trucks shone their headlights on the road as the Usda goons, high on alcohol and/or drugs, beat people in the crowd. U Khin Zaw described how he heard the sound of cracking skulls and ran off in a panic. As in previous attacks of this sort, Suu's driver managed to press the accelerator and drive off – but the car was blocked further down the road and everyone arrested.

After several months in Insein, Suu was returned to house arrest after a gynaecological operation. This third incarceration, which still continues, is only the latest in a lifetime of difficulties. The death of her father when she was still an infant was followed by the drowning of her elder brother on Inya Lake near her family house (awarded by the democratic regime of U Nu to her mother, the first widow Daw Khin Kyi, in the 1950s).

In 2000, Suu lost Michael Aris - her husband, staunch supporter, and the father of her two sons, Alexander and Kim - to prostate cancer. Daw Suu has been under periodic attack by the government-controlled press of Myanmar, due to her interracial marriage and her mixed-race children. Only people who have lived in Burma, and have been exposed to such a vulgar mentality will really understand the pain such attacks must cause.

Aung San Suu Kyi refused the chance to leave Burma to see her dying husband because she could not abandon her people and their cause. Yet she has always responded to questions about the sacrifices she has made in her personal life by saying these are nothing compared to the suffering of Burma's people.

Eighteen years is a long time. But the spirit and example of Aung San Suu Kyi is a beacon of hope that Burmese people's collective agony will indeed come to an end.

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