From the Archive

Recalling a Birthday Marked in Silence

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 19 June 2020

Today, Myanmar people congratulate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as she turns 75. To mark the occasion, The Irrawaddy revisits this commentary published on her birthday in 2008, at which time Myanmar’s then pro-democracy leader was under house arrest, as she had been for 13 of the previous 19 years. The dramatic changes that have occurred since then seem only to confirm Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe’s observation in the article—published less than a month after the military regime extended her detention—that the fate of Myanmar and the woman who was then its most famous prisoner of conscience are inextricably intertwined. 

Everyone knows where Aung San Suu Kyi is spending her 63rd birthday today. But as millions of her supporters around the world mark the occasion, no one can say when she will be released from the family home that has been her prison for most of the past 19 years.

I still remember a conversation I had with Suu Kyi in late 1999, during one of her brief interludes of freedom. We met at the Rangoon headquarters of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Two youth members of the NLD were also there. We discussed politics and our experiences as political prisoners, as well as our plans for our future education.

I can clearly recall her sobering advice at that time: that we should be prepared for a “lifelong struggle” to restore democracy to Burma.

It already feels like a lifetime has passed since then.

A few months after I met her, she was put under house arrest again. Today, almost a decade later, she is still in detention. She has been a prisoner for nearly 13 of the past 19 years.

On May 27, five years after she was taken into custody following the infamous Depayin massacre that left many of her followers dead, her detention was extended again.

When she will be released is as uncertain as the future of Burma itself. After 46 years of iron-fisted military rule, Burma seems to be perpetually on the verge of collapse. No one knows when the next crisis will strike. But one thing seems certain: The fate of Burma and its most famous prisoner of conscience are inextricably intertwined.

For the moment, the junta still holds the reins. And that means that Suu Kyi will probably not see freedom before 2010, when the regime plans to hold an election that it has no intention of losing. By that time, she will be 65 years old—twenty years older than she was when her party delivered the junta a humiliating defeat in the country’s last general election.

The regime never honored the results of the 1990 election, but it is expected to welcome the outcome of the 2010 vote. As in the constitutional referendum held in May, the junta’s victory is guaranteed.

The draft constitution, which was supposedly supported by 92 percent of the population, sets aside 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military appointees. It is also highly likely that the regime will form a political party and field candidates with strong military backing.

If the junta can achieve its goal of rewriting history—erasing the two decades that it has ruled as a reviled and illegitimate regime and starting afresh with an electoral and constitutional mandate, however dubious—it may see fit to release Suu Kyi.

But this is far from certain. The regime knows from past experience that Suu Kyi’s influence is not easily eclipsed.

When she was released from her first six-year period of house arrest in 1995, crowds flocked to her home each Saturday to hear her speak. Her talks on political subjects threatened to revive the people’s democratic aspirations, and so she was once again removed from the public eye.

In 2002, Suu Kyi was released again. Sure enough, her magnetism proved to be undiminished. Her travels around the country attracted immense attention.

Desperate to contain her popular appeal, the regime masterminded an attack on her motorcade in Depayin, Sagaing Division, on May 30, 2003. She survived the carefully orchestrated assault, but many of her supporters did not.

Even after the regime had shown the extent to which it was willing to go to remove her from Burma’s political equation, Suu Kyi remained firmly committed to dialogue.

In an article written several years later, Razali Ismail, the former United Nations envoy to Burma, recounted a conversation he had with Suu Kyi a few days after the Depayin incident: “She said that she was prepared to turn the page for the sake of the people and reconciliation, saying she was still prepared to talk to the government.”

It is almost bizarre, in light of such evidence of Suu Kyi’s willingness to forgive the regime for the many indignities that it has inflicted upon her over the past two decades, to listen to charges that she has been inflexible in her dealings with the ruling generals.

There are even some who ask if her unwavering principles, determination and courage have become political liabilities for Burma. They seem to imply that the country would be better off with an opposition leader who didn’t make the regime look so nasty and brutish by contrast.

Many of Suu Kyi’s supporters have commented that she has the power to bring out the best in people. Is it possible that she also brings out the worst in her opponents? But it seems almost grotesquely unfair to suggest that she’s to blame for the junta’s poor public image.

What makes Suu Kyi so appealing to many, and so appalling to some, is that she speaks the simple truth.

She disarms people with her candor. But the generals know that lies are all they have, so they continue to attack her.
Not everyone who criticizes Suu Kyi is attacking her. But what some of her critics have in common with the regime is that they tend to ignore the facts in favor of a view which suggests that Burma is a permanent basket case, with or without military rule.

Some say that Suu Kyi’s Burman ethnicity, which she shares with most of the ruling generals, makes her equally unfit to rule a country as ethnically diverse as Burma. She herself has never shied away from the complex issue of ethnic politics. Indeed, she has always been clear that talks with the regime should include representatives of Burma’s many ethnic minorities.

Suu Kyi has never spoken of the ethnic issue as if it were a secondary matter, although her energies have always been directed primarily at restoring democracy. Far from treating the ethnic issue as unimportant, she has always envisioned democracy as a means of addressing the legitimate aspirations of various ethnic groups.

In this, she is worlds apart from both the junta and many so-called “Burma experts.” While the regime believes that force is the only way to hold the country together, some academics argue that the country is doomed to fall apart. Suu Kyi rejects both militarism and pessimism as political dead ends.

Is Suu Kyi guilty, then, of unfounded optimism about the future of Burma? Not at all.

In 1990, the NLD won over 80 percent of the seats in parliament. Even more significantly, the party’s support was strong not only in Burman-dominated cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay, but also in ethnic states.

In eastern Karen State, the NLD won 71 percent of seats; in northern Kachin State, it took 73 percent. Southeastern Mon State gave the party 80 percent support. In Shan State, the NLD won over 39 percent, while in Karenni State it won 50 percent. In western Arakan and Chin states, it won over 34 and 30 percent, respectively.

What does this prove? That Burma’s people, regardless of ethnicity, want democracy and see it as a means of improving their lives. That was true in 1990, and it is true today.

But Suu Kyi’s appeal has never been based on false promises, so the people of Burma also know that even if they get what they want most—freedom from a brutal dictatorship—there will still be challenges ahead.

Nearly a decade ago, Suu Kyi warned me that the road ahead would not be easy. Perhaps it wasn’t what I wanted to hear at the time. But now her words ring truer than ever, even though the voice that spoke them has been silenced—for how long, nobody knows.

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