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On Suu Kyi: The Enigmatic Burmese Icon

Guest Opinion

Like many of my age, I first learned about Aung San Suu Kyi through my Political Science textbook. What is still firmly ingrained in my memory is the quote, ‘’The only real prison is fear and the only real freedom is Freedom from Fear.’’, alongside the fact that that was placed beside Nelson Mandela’s tale of struggle. She is truly quite rare a political figure both in the sense that she was honoured as an international symbol of peaceful resistance and an outstanding example of the ‘Power of the powerless’; described by the Norwegian Nobel Committee as one of the most extraordinary examples of civilian courage in Asia and also because such have the circumstances been that the fate of Myanmar (now doomed to be a chaotic military dictatorship again) came to be so intrinsically and perhaps inevitably attached to the fate of ‘The Lady’.

Image Credits: Time/Ms./RHUK

But to me, she remains an enigma. Almost every time she’s spoken in public, her complaint has been – ‘’Nobody seems to be interested in what I say about difficult issues. They just want flashes that they can run through.’’¹ This article builds upon observations on Suu Kyi derived from numerous interviews, lectures, conferences and essays to try to put the pieces of the puzzle in perspective and suggest some conjectures on the course that things have taken and not to chart her journey as an erstwhile icon who ‘fell from grace’ or to draw any concrete conclusions.

The Making of Burma's 'Revolutionary' Spirit

To put the foundations of her beliefs in perspective, the influence of her father – the founder of the Burmese military and independent Burma- Aung San, Buddhism, and of the leaders of Indian independence is particularly important. "I could not as my father's daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on," she said in a speech in Yangon on 26 August 1988. Aung San died when she was just two, and didn’t remember anything of him but was subsequently educated by her mother Khin Kyi. Her father’s pragmatism and discipline inspired her and gave her the strength to sacrifice her freedom and family life and shoulder the dream of a truly free Burma. It is worth pondering upon how much of her motivation in the whole struggle was truly for democracy and how much of it was based around her own sense of destiny to do this as the daughter of Aung San, for which she wanted to be in power and she minced no words about her political ambitions. Like her father, she claims, she has been absolutely honest with her people. “I would come down at night (while under house arrest) and walk around and look up at his photograph and feel very close to him … It’s you and me, Father, against them... When I first joined the movement for democracy, it was out of a sense of duty rather than anything else, which, on the other hand, is linked quite closely to my love for my father. I could not separate it from my love for the country and its people.’’ ²

As a result of this legacy, her near-naïve conviction in the trouble-making, dictatorial military of Burma always remained intact, more or less as also depicted by (among other things) her infamous description of the generals as ‘’rather sweet’’ in the midst of the Rohingya Crisis raging. ‘’I am always inspired by good soldiers. I am very partial to civilised warriors .. rather civilised professionals and good humans.’’³ The defence of the military at the ICJ is another saga – predominantly political.

Buddhism is essential to Burma’s core. This aspect is rather unexceptional, with Suu Kyi often invoking its precepts in relying heavily on them for allowing her a sense of inner freedom during her years of house arrest and believing that ‘’loving kindness’’ and compassion can guide Burma’s democratic transition, fostering reconciliation with the military, instead of anger and revenge. When asked in a 2015 interview to India Today about the rise of Buddhist nationalism, she said ‘’Of course, it does worry us but it is not an easy answer. You know how religious passions are. It’s doubly difficult for us as the Constitution forbids us from mixing religion with politics. So, I have to be very careful about what I say. But we want justice for everybody. The Rakhine has many problems also because of the policies pursued by the military authorities for decades. I have talked about it but no one is interested. I cannot bring the two communities together after condemning either. I believe in meta & karuna very, very deeply.’’ The typical Suu Kyi line.

She spoke in great detail at the 2012 Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture about her admiration for Indian leaders and the support she received from India while under house arrest. ‘’Gandhi’s influence in my life is well recognised but Nehru’s is less well known. My mother spoke of him as a revered friend, both to her and my dad. She was as you must know, Burma’s ambassador to India’’

She went on to describe various incidents including her parents’ interactions with Nehru and her opinion of his aristocratic disdain for overtly cheerful crowds and also his honest and open nature. She had met him as a young teenager herself in New Delhi. She drew upon quotes from The Discovery of India and his autobiography, drawing parallels and recognising differences in their respective periods of the arrest. Rather humorously, she explained that she was quite pleased with her pantheon of heroes and heroines, with being by herself, toughening up and leading a disciplined life. Her struggle, she reiterated, ‘’ is nothing compared to that of my people who are so worse off, who have borne so much more.’’ She then talked about the intellectual and spiritual experience under political arrests when any thinking individual grapples with many questions and builds a philosophy ‘to justify their actions of accepting stress and danger for a cause.’ and also about a common favourite poem. She recalled how Nehru once wrote about being disgusted with the contemporary communal political environment but eventually chose to continue even in the face of Kamala Nehru’s frail health. Also emphasized were the mutual understanding and respect between Gandhi and Nehru despite all the dissensions and disagreements.

In the context of Nehru’s deep disdain for draconian colonial laws, she quotes from The Discovery of India,” ‘The law is but the will of the dominant faction and order – a reflex of an all-pervasive fear.’ - I wrote this on a sheet of paper and hung it at the entrance of my house for my only visitors were the security personnel who couldn’t help but read it which reflected my own sentiments exactly about the state of affairs in Burma. Preserving dharma and the absence of fear is imperative…. The Discovery of Nehru is also a discovery of myself.’’ 5

Post-independence Myanmar has never actually experienced peace nor has its experiment with democracy been a truly liberal one. It’s certain that the country is one of the most diverse and complex in the world. Suu’s regal manner, her legacy, elegant Burmese clothes, and Oxford English, along with the ever-present flower in her hair, lent her a kind of ethereal charisma and made her the perfect representative of democracy.

When the National League of Democracy (NLD) pulled off a historic landslide victory in the 2015 elections and although Suu Kyi was barred from becoming President under the 2008 constitution, she had made it clear that the power would rest with her. At many World Economic Forums, she has spoken about how that election was a mammoth of a gamble for all. From explaining the masses about the significance of voting, to even the basics of how to cast a vote, ensuring free and fair electoral practices and putting forth a consistent message of being committed to Constitutional Reforms, Peace and Reconciliation and Economic Prosperity. ‘In 2015, you’re not voting for just yourself, you’re voting for the country, for children, grand-children. There’s too much division. Our principles will firmly be based on Reconciliation and Inclusiveness. Unity, understanding and generosity are lost in our country.’’, she exclaimed.

Maybe, the coup reverses all that, if not the turbulent years of the Suu Kyi led NLD government. Wishful thinking aside.

However, her rule seemed to be marred by her autocratic style of leadership, turning her back on Press freedom, dismal handling of the Rohingya crisis and limited progress on the economy and environment. Sure, she faced a daunting challenge but even the limited expectations were not met. But from the beginning Aung San Suu Kyi’s poor leadership skills were quite apparent. “When she was under house arrest the NLD practically shut down,” said Mark Farmaner, head of Burma Campaign UK, who helped train NLD figures in Myanmar. 7

On the issue of Rohingyas, it seems that she actually bought into the military narrative and it was not merely a political strategy as can be ascertained by the following statements, ‘’ I wonder if the attacks (by Rohingyas on local police) were calculated to stop the peace process and development plans. There is a lot of hostility there. It is Muslims killing Muslims as well. Ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression for what is happening in Rakhine. I want to give a chance to the people on the ground to show that they are capable.’’8 Well, not only the Buddhist majority but even Daw Suu, as called by her supporters, seemed completely oblivious to the genocide. The one who so often preached compassion, responsibility and the Rule of Law refused to do much with them.

In the end, she continues to represent the will of the people. It is also a point that how far could her will and power go in a country where the power and resources held by the coercive military apparatus are exorbitantly high. It is almost surreal. But the general gains from the however flawed democratic transition cannot be reversed as is visible today in the scores of people bravely asserting their long-standing pro-democracy cry. Derek Mitchell, former US Ambassador to Myanmar told the BBC, “The story of Aung San Suu Kyi is as much about us as it is about her. She may not have changed. She may have been consistent and we just didn't know the full complexity of who she is.”

No one tried to resist the idealised version of Aung San Suu Kyi more than Aung San Suu Kyi herself, aware of the fragility of the pedestal the west in particular had placed her upon. “I am just a politician,” she said in a 2015 interview. “I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no. But on the other hand