Book Examines Moral Basis of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Concept of Democracy

By Mon Mon Myat 2 November 2019

Not long ago, the world acknowledged Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a democracy and human rights icon. Today she is being labeled as a falling star. Echoing the voices of her fellow Nobel winners, the New Yorker blew her up with the term “the ignoble laureate” for not taking any initiative “to ensure full and equal citizenship rights of the Rohingyas”. Such criticism, however, doesn’t seem to disturb her, judging from her response in one interview: “Actually, nothing is surprising, because opinions change and world opinions change like any other opinion.”

While the world questions her moral convictions on the Rohingya refugee issue, author Michal Lubina examines Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s political thought in his book, The Moral Democracy: The Political Thought of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Suu Kyi’s democracy is rather a Burmese Buddhist democracy derived from morality not an equivalent to any Western understanding of democracy,” he writes.

Lubina explains the reason for his title “The Moral Democracy”. “Suu Kyi has presented democracy not as a political system, not as an institutional framework, or not even as ‘the worst form of government, except for all others.’ No. Suu Kyi presented democracy in a very Burmese Buddhist way: as a moral value. That is why her vision of democracy (and of politics in general) is a moral vision.”

Lubina sees Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s political thought as “the attempt to show that democracy and Buddhism are a perfect match.” He finds two ways Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made that attempt: “First, she tried to show that concepts of democracy and human rights are in accord with Buddhism. Second, she later significantly Buddhicised her political rhetoric.”

Lubina divides his book into four chapters: “The Buddhist Background of Burmese Political Thought”; “Burmese Political Thought”; “The Pivotal Figure of Aung San and His Legacy”; and “The Moral Democracy: the political thought of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”. Lubina writes one particular section on “Fear and Freedom from Fear”, the concept Daw Aung San Suu Kyi crafted during her first house detention period from 1989 into the 1990s. He observes the meaning of fear for the oppressed under authoritarian rule—and their striving not to be corrupted by fear—is not always apparent to Westerners (“the effort necessary to remain uncorrupted in an environment where fear is an integral part of everyday existence is not immediately apparent to those fortunate enough to live in states governed by the rule of law”) which brings Suu Kyi to the point of importance of “just laws”.

Lubina highlights as a key to Daw Suu’s argument the importance of “just laws”, often mentioned in Daw Suu’s rhetoric, (which “do not merely prevent corruption by meting out impartial punishment to offenders” but also “help to create a society in which people can fulfill the basic requirements necessary for the preservation of human dignity without recourse to corrupt practices.”).

In the rhetoric and writing of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Lubina sees an emphasis on “the individual as the ultimate agent of change”. According to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s philosophy of a “revolution of the spirit”, the individual who gets used to four kinds of corruption must change their spirit first so as not to be corrupted by fear, anger, desire and ignorance, in order to build an uncorrupted society, which she thinks of as the foundation of democracy.

Looking at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s concept of fear, Lubina observes “her vision of fear enslaving both the oppressors and the oppressed must be considered a strong, universal voice in favor of freedom, at the same time – in the Burmese political thought – it represents a variation of the ‘optimistic’ narrative of possibility of human beings to change their kamma.”

Lubina writes that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s understanding of democracy is a moral vision based on “traditional Burmese Buddhist political thought patterns”. Western democracy in her thought plays a secondary role.

“Although Western-based, institutional understanding of democracy, with checks and balances, is also present in Suu Kyi’s thought, it plays a secondary role to the main, moral message. Suu Kyi’s democracy is a moral vision; vague at best, utopian at worst.”

One of Daw Suu’s close friends, the renowned BBC correspondent Fergal Keane, made a similar comment to Lubina. Keane wrote in the introduction of Daw Suu’s book, Letters from Burma, “We talked at some length about this and about her philosophy of non-violence – something upon which I found Aung San Suu Kyi unbending. There would be no resort to armed struggle in Burma. Her conviction was based on Buddhist principles but she also understood that an armed uprising would invite even more terrible violence upon the poor.”

The cover of ‘The Moral Democracy: The Political Thought of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’ by Michal Lubina.

In fact, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s concepts of democracy and human rights are taken from Buddhism as she follows in the footsteps of other visionaries of nonviolence like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. King wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail after he was arrested for the Birmingham campaign in 1963 for organizing marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. In the letter, King highlighted two types of laws: “just laws, and unjust laws.” King said in accordance with St. Augustine that, “An unjust law is no law at all.” Most of King’s speeches are based on a religious concept similar to Gandhi’s Ahimsa principle, which is rooted in Hinduism. Love, truth and justice are very common in the speeches of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She also studied Nelson Mandela’s approach to leading a transition to non-racial democracy in a place where people used violence as a way to fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhicised political rhetoric promotes the empowerment of the Myanmar people, something Lubina observes in the 25 rallies held at the gate of her home between September 1995 and April 1996.

“Through the speeches, she promotes the concept of an active citizenship, i.e., thinking, questioning and criticizing individuals by allowing inclusion and participation of the people in the speeches. The speeches as such are part of Suu Kyi’s revolution of education, in which Suu Kyi plays the role of a model, representing and exemplifying the goals of education and the role of a teacher, who explains concepts theoretically.”

An interesting part of Lubina’s book is the comparison he draws between the political thought of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military generals. He compares two competing political philosophies, authoritarianism and democracy: “Even at first glance one can easily see similarities not only to authoritarianism (āṇā), coercion, and democracy (awza), charisma, but also to two meta political philosophies: political realism (the generals) versus idealism/liberalism (Suu Kyi).”

Lubina draws common ground between “the Lady” and the military generals, “both based on philosophical understanding of human nature in accordance with Buddhism”.

Referring to Myanmar’s military, he also describes the “Tatmadaw’s concept of democracy (or politics and political systems in general)”. It “had very strong elements of guardianship and was founded on an inherent skepticism about the capacity of individual citizens” – a concept “firmly anchored in traditional Burmese-Buddhist notion of politics according to which a strong political authority was pre-requisite for a thriving sasana” (Buddhist community).

In fact, the Tatmadaw has a fear of losing power, which it claims to wield for the sake of saving the nation from anarchy and disintegration. It has formulated its version of democracy, “the disciplined democracy.”

Lubina sees Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s concept of democracy, with its “emphasis on the role of the citizens in enabling the democratic vision”, as equally entrenched within the Theravāda Buddhism framework, which places “equal emphasis on unity and national interest and yet had at its core an individual’s capacity for correct moral practice rather than obedience to authoritarian rules and regulations”, as stated in Matthew Walton’s paper, Buddhism, Politics and Political Thought in Myanmar.

In Lubina’s view, Daw Suu has been trying to follow in the footsteps of her father Gen. Aung San and to implement his unfinished political task. Her political thought is “firmly anchored in [a] traditional Burmese-Buddhist notion of politics”.

Based on material collected for the book, Lubina interprets that “the international/universalist dimension of Suu Kyi’s political thought has always been subjugated to the Burmese one. Suu Kyi called for universal (Western) values, but understood them in a Burmese way, where such ideas as unity, duty or sacrifice come ahead of the universal rights for everyone.”

This interpretation is critical for Lubina to understanding Daw Suu’s response to the recent Rohingya refugee crisis. He says Daw Suu advocated “for the Burmese people, and for the interests of Burma, not for the Rohingyas whom she – most probably – does not consider as fellow Burmese.”

“Here her ‘unintentional condescension’ for non-Burmans showed itself, was brought into daylight by the Rohingya crisis. The crisis proved that for Suu Kyi human rights have their limits when Burma’s and Burmans’ (and her personal) interests are at stake. And this, in turn, proves that international dimension of her thought was only a thin, surface layer beneath her deep Burmese Buddhist approach to politics, one in the very footsteps of her father,” Lubina writes.

Although Lubina’s description of the international dimension of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s political thought as a “thin, surface layer” is relatively rational, his view of Daw Suu’s respect for human rights being limited to Burma and Burmans is derived from a Western perspective. If one looks at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a political activist, the role she took until 2015, one will justify her actions from a rights-based perspective. In fact, Daw Suu has changed her position from that of activist to that of stateswoman, or leader. One should not be surprised that she is fulfilling the duties of a ruler; or that she has changed from a rights-based to a responsibilities-based approach.

As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi practices a fundamentally Buddhist way, she is supposed to hold a non-self (Anatta) doctrine from Buddhism in which being Burman or non-Burmans or being Buddhist or non-Buddhist is not central. She has proved her non-self doctrine in many cases in the past.

One of the various examples is that, in the case of her dying husband, she gave priority to the national interest rather than family affairs. She never leaves the nation behind her personal affairs. She is ready to work together with the military generals who put her under house arrest for many years because national reconciliation is her primary goal. Many cases verify that Daw Suu avoids taking sides, as she doesn’t have any attachment to pro-military, pro-democracy, Burman or non-Burman groups. As Aung San and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were and are very patriotic, the interest of the nation and the interest of the majority of the people are their main concerns. For Daw Suu, Rohingya or Rakhine or Kachin affairs are just the interests of particular groups. She always gives priority to the smooth transition to democracy as being in the interest of the whole nation.

In the case of the Rohingya refugee crisis, Daw Suu seemingly follows one of the 10 duties of kings: non-opposition (to the will of the people). Speaking up on behalf of the Rohingya community would potentially destroy her political standing with the majority of voters, a large proportion of whom are ethnic Burman. In my opinion, she uses her moral character to win the respect and trust of a majority of voters, which may or may not be limited to Burmans, to serve the best interest of the nation. However, Lubina calls this “Suu Kyi’s negligence of ethnic issues.”

Lubina observes that the democratic perspectives of both Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military are “ideologically and politically two sides of the same coin where, of course, and quite naturally Suu Kyi’s side of the coin is more appealing, brighter and represents much better version and vision.”

However, Lubina says that “Suu Kyi’s government represents a failed hope; a hope, however vague hope it was, Suu Kyi personified for thirty years.”

“All Suu Kyi is able to offer is moral vision that lacks concrete details….all she can do is to build moral ivory towers, intellectual edifices that are good only on paper,” he writes.

In reality, both the concept of nonviolence and limited legitimate power create a conundrum for a charismatic moral leader like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. What she is trying to build is a kind of Utopia, similar to Gandhi’s Ram Raj (Kingdom of God) or Martin Luther King’s “dream”.

In fact, Lubina’s judgment from the perspective of mid-2018 that “Suu Kyi’s moral vision is not enough to reform and govern a country” might be a bit premature.

Whatever we call it—“Utopia” or “a Just Society” or a “dream”—the journey of a nonviolent visionary is not completed in a day, a year or even a century. Whether the dreams of nonviolent visionaries or moral leaders will come true, only time will tell us.

Mon Mon Myat is a freelance writer/journalist and a graduate student in the PhD program in peace-building at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.