Human Rights

What Burma Should Learn From Nelson Mandela

By Min Zin 9 December 2013

Madiba passed away on Thursday night. Though it was expected for some time, given his long hospitalization, I was saddened, and guilty. I owed him an apology.

I had the opportunity to enjoy a one-on-one conversation with Nelson Mandela in 2003, when MTV was preparing a 60-minute special feature in honor of his 85th birthday.

I was one of four young people selected to speak with Mandela and seek his advice during the special. We were chosen because our stories resonated with Mandela’s life and the South Africa he sought to change. My own life was meant to parallel his experiences under the Apartheid regime and, more generally, we were both familiar with the struggle of building democracy. When my country’s army executed a military coup in 1988, I was deeply invested in the student-led, pro-democracy movement. Since then, Burma has struggled to establish democracy, as the decades-long conflict between the military and ethnic minorities continues. Mandela and I exchanged our stories: his life in prison and my life on the run, evading arrest by the Burmese military junta.

We both had family members that suffered from the persecution of ruling regimes because of our political activities. I explained to him that my dad was arrested because of my activism, and held hostage while the military came to my home and tried to arrest me. It was 1989, and I was 15 years old. Since then, almost all of my family members have been arrested and interrogated. I asked Mandela, whose family suffered a similar fate during his imprisonment, whether he felt guilty—and if so, how he had transformed his feelings of guilt into moral strength and positive action.

His answer was firm and encouraging. He told me that we should not take persecution personally, or feel guilt for the pain repressive governments inflict on our families. With his resolute voice, Mandela urged me to reconnect with my cause—which is larger and more worthwhile than I am—whenever I feel frustrated with personal misery or the lack of progress in the political struggle. After he finished speaking, he offered me a reassuring, broad smile and comforting nods; that struck me most of all. I still remember how fatherly Mandela was in his treatment of me.

Our conversation became a bit tense when I insisted that he speak out, publicly, in support of the Burmese democracy movement. My meeting with Mandela took place a few weeks after Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was attacked by state-organized thugs on May 30, 2003. An unknown number of people died in the attack, and Suu Kyi only narrowly escaped the alleged assassination attempt.

I therefore requested that Mandela release a public statement denouncing the Burmese junta, and urged him to pay attention to the civil war and the miseries of ethnic minorities in my ill-fated country. I wore a T-shirt featuring a well-known student political prisoner, Min Ko Naing, under my shirt, and gave Mandela a gift of a traditional bag made by a Karen ethnic refugee woman. I begged him: “Please join your fellow Nobel laureates and do something public for Burma.” In response, he looked me carefully in the eyes and said, slowly: “Min Zin, it is sometimes not a good idea to climb up to the top of the mountain and scream.” When I gave him a puzzled look, he continued, “We often need to work on quiet diplomacy and engagement.”

I responded to his words with disappointment and irritation. I thought it was a rude response. Mandela, however, stressed the importance of strategy in politics. He advised me to envision a positive outcome, rather than becoming stuck in the vicious circle of political polarization. Mandela used imagination and vision, rather than memory, to break out of the apartheid system. It’s been 10 years since I met Mandela, and though I still believe he could have done more for Burma’s cause, I have now come to realize the core wisdom of his words, and the lesson Burma could learn from it.

These days, Burma’s transition from tyranny to democracy is partly stymied by the opposition’s attempt to institutionalize the memory of our past political divisions. Instead of putting forward a vision for the future and policies to make that vision a reality, the opposition leadership tends to employ a “good-versus-evil” political narrative as a key frame of reference in mobilizing the public. The opposition, of course, can gain a significant advantage by using this polarizing ploy. The public’s distrust and hatred of the previous junta still poisons its opinion of the current pseudo-civilian government. However, using history as a campaign instrument has only encouraged dark forces within the establishment to defend themselves using “biology” in campaigns advocating racial and religious purity. These have ranged from an attempt to prohibit interfaith marriage, to rampant anti-Muslim hate speeches, to outright communal violence. The country is gradually sliding into a history-versus-biology political battle as it approaches the 2015 elections. What we really need is a truly democratic contest of vision and policy. The country lacks a sense of unity. True reconciliation and healing remain elusive in this fragile transition.

Mandela was right. When invoking memory becomes a political strategy, society suffers from a lack of imagination. Without a new vision for the future, we cannot move on and be reborn.

After our conversation ended, he introduced me to his grandchildren. He said to them, “Although Min Zin disagreed with me on some issues, I respect him.” After a short pause, he continued: “Because he is a freedom fighter.” His words electrified me. Now Mandela has passed away. I have had 10 years to learn to appreciate the value he placed on vision and imagination over history and memory. I understand now. I owe him an apology—but Madiba has already gone.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Foreign Policy’s Transitions, where this article first appeared on Dec. 7, 2013.