Aung San Suu Kyi has completed her US tour, returning to Rangoon on Thursday night. Last week I had the privilege of flying to the Washington to see her during her stop there. It was a great honor to greet her again in person. It was 23 years since we had last seen each other.
On Aug. 26, 1988, I marched together with my fellow high school students to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon to listen to the historic speech Aung San Suu Kyi gave in front of an audience that may have numbered up to a million people. My eldest brother, a student activist who had been arrested for his political work on campus and had been released just a few weeks earlier, was helping to keep the crowd in order around the rostrum. I ended up out there somewhere in the middle, as the never-ending applause and the chanting of political slogans washed over me. At times I even heard her voice, but most of the time it was hard to make her out over the cheers: “Long live Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!”
My father was a former student activist who had opposed military dictatorship since the late 1950s. That evening I heard him say: “We’ve found our true leader.” Tears welled up in his eyes. It amazed me.
When I met her in person for the first time in the wake of the 1988 military coup, I immediately realized that my father was right. She struck me as a towering figure, an inspirational leader.
My respect for the Lady since then has never diminished. But I will never allow my love and admiration for her to hold me back from speaking my mind. I believe strongly that I always have the right to scrutinize the arguments of the people with whom I share a common moral universe. I will never allow my respect for this hero to serve as an excuse for surrendering my critical faculties.
My long-awaited encounter with the Lady last week was no exception. During a dinner event in honor of Suu Kyi in Washington, I saw how my American friends were riveted by her speech. They were amazed to see her give her talk in impeccable English, without teleprompter or notes.
Yet I found the substance of her speech disappointing. She spent most of the time telling her audience about the work being done by her political party, the National League for Democracy, in the communities where it’s active. But she didn’t have a single word to spare for the fate of some 70,000 ethnic Kachin people fleeing the war between Burmese army and Kachin rebels. The war has been going on since last year, when the government broke a 17-year ceasefire and launched an attack on the rebels. The Kachin refugees are living in overcrowded camps, enduring heavy monsoon rains without food, drinking water, and medicine. Both the Burmese and Chinese governments are exacerbating the situation by blocking the delivery of aid to the refugees. To make matters worse, Beijing has also forced thousands of refugees who tried to escape the fighting by crossing the border into its territory back into the war zone.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence about all this is alarming. Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so. Last week a group of 23 Kachin ethnic organizations issued an open letter to the Lady challenging her position and inviting her to visit the refugees in Kachin State. “You will be able to hear directly from the victims about the human rights abuses that have been committed against them,” the authors of the letter wrote. “You will see for yourself the suffering caused by the Burmese government’s refusal to allow humanitarian aid into these areas.”
The Kachin activists point out that no one is in a better position than Daw Suu to publicize their dire situation. “You are now able to travel all over the world and speak openly to large audiences,” they write. “We have trust in you that you will recognize the urgency and importance of this request and not refuse the invitation.”
Acknowledging the criticism, the Lady rationalized her silence in one of her public events in New York. She argues that taking sides in the war will make it worse, and warns the members of the Burmese exile community to focus on reconciliation rather than dwelling on what divides us. Instead of ascribing blame, she called on the people to examine the root causes of the conflict and to address them.
This all sounds very reasonable, of course. But, in reality, it’s a position that falls far short of the high standards we’ve come to expect from Aung San Suu Kyi. To see someone of her stature treating the oppressor and the oppressed as morally equivalent is depressing. Let’s be clear about it: In this situation, the oppressed are the Kachins.
Let’s start with a well-known fact: Burma is a multi-ethnic country. Under the pre-colonial Burman kingdoms as well as during British colonial rule, all of the main ethnic groups enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. After independence in 1948, the Burman armed forces of the new Burmese state entered the ethnic regions, militarized the government, and plundered the country’s natural resources, much of which is located in the minority regions. The central government has tried to forcibly assimilate the local populations while committing heinous human rights violations (including large-scale murder, rape, and forced relocations, all well documented). So you just can’t claim that there are “two sides” to these conflicts that are equally worthy of consideration. The ethnic groups’ struggle for political autonomy and self-determination is a justified reaction to domination and repression by the Burman majority. Burmans (a group that includes Aung San Suu Kyi and the present author) should be able to understand this.
So it’s puzzling that Aung San Suu Kyi would choose to stress the virtues of neutrality. I should be clear about something else: respecting the cause of the ethnic minorities doesn’t mean that you have to be silent about human rights violations committed by the ethnic armed forces. You don’t have to agree with all of the minority groups’ demands. Finding a way out of post-conflict situations is always messy, and always dictated by practical matters of history and economics as much as by abstract principle. Reconciliation always involves negotiations and political trade-offs. All the ethnic groups involved in Burma’s civil war agree with the need to find pragmatic solutions. It’s important to note, by the way, that none of the main minority groups is now calling for secession.
What we don’t need here, of course, is a moral recklessness that ultimately provokes further conflict. What we do need is that quality of moral sensitivity and courage that can “lend a voice to suffering” because it “is a condition of all truth,” as Theodor Adorno once wrote. If Aung San Suu Ky fails to find her voice on this issue, she runs the risk of creating even greater resentment among the underdogs.
Yes, it’s true. Burma’s transition is very fragile, and we have to be careful how we move forward. The democratic opposition has already made many compromises, and it will have to make many more. That is entirely logical, and to some extent it is justified by the current political situation (one in which the regime is far stronger and more ruthless). But what the pro-democracy movement cannot do in this situation is to surrender its core values. It cannot give up the principles for which it has fought for so long and which continue to define it. Otherwise it runs the risk of giving up its own reason for being.
Suu Kyi has said she will strongly condemn human rights violations and any efforts to derail the reconciliation process in Burma. But she has yet to take a clear stand on the abuses that are still being committed in the Kachin conflict as I write this. Let’s hope she can find it in her heart to change.
Min Zin is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. This commentary originally appeared on the Foreign Policy blog “Transitions.” The views expressed here are those of the author.