Aung San Suu Kyi —hers is a name synonymous with humanity’s enduring and stoic struggle for justice, up there with global icons like Nelson Mandela and America’s own heroes of social justice, such as Martin Luther King.
Now, on her first visit to the United States since being released from house arrest, she has been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor the US joint parliament can bestow. And it is a medal that she undoubtedly deserves for her many years of defiant and peaceful resistance against military misrule in her home country of Burma, also known as Myanmar. We all salute her. Suu Kyi’s remarkable resilience in the face of great personal and national tragedy gave millions hope and inspired successive generations to continue the struggle against tyranny and oppression.
I last met her in 2010, when she was still under house arrest. She was kind, intelligent and determined. Her tenacity was unwavering. We bonded, not only as Asian women working in our own ways to secure a better world for our people, but also in our visions of how we can achieve that world. She is now a fellow parliamentarian, she in Burma and myself in Indonesia. We are both female politicians in a world dominated by men. We had much to share. Indonesia too has struggled to emerge from military misrule and while we have, as a nation, made great strides toward a modern egalitarian society and a robust economy with respect for human rights, we still have many, many battles to overcome.
In Suu Kyi’s Burma today, the daily struggle remains. The country has indeed made key steps towards opening up; but its people are still oppressed and the military regime that ruled with seemingly remorseless ruthlessness continues to wield its undemocratic power.
Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in late 2010, and in April this year, she deservedly won a seat in her country’s nascent parliament. We rejoiced with her and the people of Burma. But Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow National League for Democracy party MPs, as well as the many other opposition parliamentarians, have a difficult task ahead of them. They remain handcuffed by an undemocratic and restrictive constitution that reserves inequitable power for the military and the Union Solidarity and Development Party it dominates.
The United States and the international community reacted to the reforms brought in by the government of former military general President Thein Sein by ramping up engagement with his government and slowly withdrawing the political and economic sanctions that had been in place since the 1990s. And indeed, Suu Kyi’s visit to the United States, and that of Thein Sein, who returned on Monday, is a sign of that growing relationship—both political and economic.
It is also a product of the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot”—Washington’s diplomatic and military realignment away from the Middle East to forge closer cooperation with countries across the Pacific.
While hope for a freer Burma remains strong—there is also a growing sense that opportunities are slowly being lost; opportunities to shape Burma’s reform process and guide it in a direction that does not see the repeat of the destruction and loss that we have witnessed in other Asean countries, mine included. International development and foreign investment may bring much-needed money to a stagnant economy, but in a country of endemic corruption, without any rule of law, and still ostensibly ruled by military cronies, it has, in the experience of the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, also brought with it gross human rights violations and extreme hardship and suffering for the most vulnerable in society. This is our greatest fear today.
As the president of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, I meet and work with civil society representatives and leading politicians from the region who are key proponents of human rights and democracy and act as a voice for the most downtrodden and oppressed in society. We have shared our experiences and worked to support each other, and the people of Asean, in the face of the powerful forces of big business, entrenched political elites, corruption, military might and geopolitics.
We remain willing and able to support Suu Kyi and other forces for positive, sustainable and representative change in Burma. And on this landmark trip to the United States and the United Nations, we call on Suu Kyi to stand up tall and voice the real concerns of her people. In a world of backroom politics and global big-business capitalism, it is easy to lose your bearings. We all want to see Burma grow and return to its rightful position as a cultural and economic leader of Asean—but this cannot be achieved at the expense of our people. Human, civil and political rights are not trading cards to be used in political poker games. They are inalienable. They form the core of a true and just society—a successful society.
National reconciliation is difficult to achieve while government troops continue to attack and commit human rights abuses in areas inhabited by ethnic minority or indigenous groups, including in Kachin and northern Shan States. A genuine transition to democracy also requires the establishment of the rule of law. Burma needs a system of independent checks and balances, composed of transparent and accountable institutions capable and willing to protect the rights of all. Forced evictions and arbitrary land confiscations are on the rise, which exacerbate already desperate poverty levels and lead to wider rights violations and compromise access to basic services and rights, such as education, water, electricity and a livelihood.
To Suu Kyi, the US government and the United Nations, I say: stand up for the hundreds of political prisoners that remain languishing in jails across Burma; stand up for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have suffered under decades of persecution and are suffering today; stand up for the rights of the ethnic minorities; stand up for the farmers and villagers who are forced into slave labor, raped, murdered, and forced from their lands to make way for “development” projects; stand up for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who need continued assistance to ensure they can return safely to their former homelands; stand up for justice, truth and human rights.
Suu Kyi’s political future lies in her greatest asset, her unwavering principles. And we are here, standing beside her and behind her in the face of pressure to undertake political gambits. And it is the responsibility also of the US government, as well as the United Nations, which gathered in New York over the week, to support her also. Do not view Burma as a land of cheap labor and rich material resources ripe for the plunder. View it instead as a land of people that have suffered despotism for decades and deserve the right to be listened to. The world has an opportunity to get it right this time. It is not too late.
Eva Kusuma Sundari is a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives and president of the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus.