Today, on her first full day on foreign soil since becoming Burma’s democratic icon 24 years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was greeted by crowds of ecstatic supporters in the Burmese enclave of Mahachai, near Thailand’s capital. But nine years ago on this day, it was a very different crowd that surrounded her.
On May 30, 2003, Suu Kyi and her entourage were traveling in Upper Burma during a rare period of relative freedom that was soon to come to an abrupt end. That night, on the outskirts of Depayin, Sagaing Division, her vehicle was stopped by a mob that soon set upon her followers with bloodthirsty, calculated brutality.
That incident, known as the Depayin Massacre, ended in the death of as many as 70 National League for Democracy (NLD) supporters. Even Suu Kyi and other senior members of the party barely escaped with their lives.
Instead of punishing the culprits—thugs organized by the Union Solidarity and Development Association (now reconstituted as the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party)—the former junta arrested and imprisoned Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders. Most remained in detention until the regime had safely handed power over to itself (in civilian guise) following sham elections in November 2010.
Looking back on this episode, particularly from the vantage point of Suu Kyi’s triumphant return to the public eye and now the world stage, we can see just how far Burma has come since last year, when the new government of President Thein Sein signaled that it was ready to create some space for the NLD. But it also serves as a sobering reminder of the complex challenges that Burma still faces as it strives to emerge from the legacy of half a century of military rule.
While the positive strides of the past year must be acknowledged, they cannot erase the memories of suffering that almost all Burmese have of this long, dark period in their country’s history. Real reconciliation cannot be achieved without justice, and that means facing the past as well as creating the basis for a better future.
Not surprisingly, many in the current government would prefer not to remember Depayin or the countless other atrocities inflicted upon Burma’s people by its rulers. “We must not be speaking about the past. We should be looking forward,” Information Minister Kyaw Hsan said in a recent interview with the BBC in Bangkok.
For now, many in the opposition seem to agree. Suu Kyi has made no mention of today’s anniversary, even though the attack was clearly directed at her, and her followers have contented themselves with quietly commemorating the deaths of their comrades in private ceremonies. (NLD sources told The Irrawaddy that Kyaw Soe Lin, Suu Kyi’s driver on that fateful night, made offerings for the repose of the Depayin dead at a ceremony in Mandalay this morning.)
Eventually, however, the ghosts of the past will need to be pacified publicly. This does not mean that retribution will have to be meted out, but that the truth must be told. Until that day comes, Burma’s future will remain as mired in misery as its past.