“Is Aung San Suu Kyi winning?” a Western expat who is a friend of mine asked me in the course of a casual conversation. Grammatically, it’s a “yes or no” question. Politically, the question is worth asking in relation not only to de facto national leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but also to the democracy movement in Myanmar, and even beyond.
The question could be interpreted in more than one way: It could mean, “Is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi winning her battle to remove the powerful military from the political arena?” And more broadly: “Has the democracy struggle she leads gained any ground in the past 30 years?”
A couple of responses to the question suggest themselves: “Yes, she is winning; her party formed the country’s first civilian government in five decades and now holds a majority of seats in the country’s parliaments.” But at the same time, one could answer, “No, she is losing; her government hasn’t been able to convince the military to amend the undemocratic Constitution, and the peace process she prioritized has gone almost nowhere, to give just a few reasons.”
In fact, I wonder what the real purpose of such a question is. Maybe it wasn’t intended as a simple question at all, but was actually a statement: “She’s not winning this battle, is she?”
I wonder how we would answer if the question was asked about other figures, like South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela or American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., former US President John F. Kennedy, Myanmar’s independence leader General Aung San or any of countless other historically important figures.
What would the answer have been if we had asked “Is Mandela winning?” when he was fighting to dismantle the appalling and ugly apartheid system in his country, or during his decades-long imprisonment in a cell on Robben Island?
What if we had asked “Is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. winning?” when he was leading the movement in the 1950s and ’60s for African-Americans to have their basic rights respected?
What would the reply be if someone asked, “Is Gen. Aung San winning?” as he led the independence struggle against British imperialism in the 20th century?
Had they been directly asked these questions themselves, I think all might have responded with the answer: “I believe our struggle will win.” If not, how could they have dedicated themselves to their respective struggles?
They might not have thought in terms of “Is our struggle winning?” Rather, they must have had faith that they were going to win. It’s a faith based on righteousness. It’s not a commercial proposition based on securing a return on an investment. It’s about a cause that benefits a society and its people based on unseen sacrifices—sacrifices involving life, death, family and everything they entail.
After starting his revolution in the early 1940s, it took many decades of struggle before Mandela prevailed. The civil rights movement had been under way through the 1950s and 1960s before King began to achieve his most significant results. Not even his assassination could stop the movement he began. Gen. Aung San’s goal was achieved many years after he joined the independence movement in the early 1930s, though he was not able to personally witness that milestone, which arrived six months after his assassination.
Without the relentless effort and dedication of those leaders, today’s South Africans would not be enjoying freedom from apartheid, African-Americans would not enjoy equal rights, access to public facilities and participation in voting, and Myanmar people would not enjoy the independence they wished for.
They and their struggles came before our time. To better relate to my friend’s question, I recalled my own generation’s fight for democracy.
I wondered, what if I had faced such a question, or had a similar thought, when I was marching with columns of my fellow student dissidents, confronting with empty hands the columns of soldiers with automatic rifles back during the 1988 uprising. What if I had been asked this while I was being tortured in the Military Intelligence’s interrogation center, or when I was serving my eight-year imprisonment in various of Myanmar’s notorious prisons.
Was 16-year-old student Win Maw Oo thinking about whether she was “winning” as she lay mortally wounded after being gunned down by soldiers of the military regime on Sept. 19, 1988, as she marched in a nonviolent protest through downtown Yangon? How about the thousands of other protesters who were killed as she was?
How would other pro-democracy and human rights activists in our country or other countries have responded to such a question, when they were the underdogs?
Out of their love and great concern for we dissidents, our parents and other relatives used to say to us, “You are stupid; you’re hitting your heads against a brick wall,” referring to our seemingly futile challenge to the military dictatorship. The only possible outcome, they implied, was a broken head.
Any student dissident from that time or since knows very well the meaning of that “brick wall” metaphor, but we willingly hit our head against it. Our heads may have been bloodied, but we have continued to knock them against that wall in many ways over the ensuing three decades.
How about today? I think we are still hitting our heads against the wall, which has still not completely collapsed—though admittedly it’s a little weaker and has a few more holes in it than when we first encountered it in 1988.
Are we winning? “Yes” or “no” cannot provide a meaningful answer. The proper answer is: “We are going to win, just as Nelson Mandela’s South Africa won, just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s African-Americans won, and just as our independence struggle led by Gen. Aung San won.
How long might our fight for democracy take? Oh… I doubt anybody has a definite answer. Is such an answer necessary? Our own generation started this struggle more than three decades ago, but, we had predecessors—those generations that tried to restore democracy after dictator Ne Win first stifled it in 1962.
It might take another generation or more. Should we give up if we think we are not winning? Many people in Myanmar would say “No”, though they might not be certain at any given point whether they are winning or not.
The theme of 2019 International Day of Democracy, which falls on Sept. 15, is “Participation”—meaning the participation of the people. In our generation, many of our people participated in the democracy movement from the beginning. Personally, I see my devotion to democracy as a student dissident in 1988, as a political prisoner in the 1990s and as a journalist these days, as being part of that public participation.
I don’t believe the souls of Win Maw Oo and those like her regret their participation in bringing about democracy for their country. I believe many people now living in Myanmar will continue to participate in our democracy-building process without calculating whether they’re “winning” or “losing”.
Myanmar has many friends around the world—my expat friend included. Some of them have been working for organizations based in Myanmar for years or even decades. And I’m sure they are familiar with Myanmar’s complexities and have a solid grasp of the basic facts and information about the country. That’s good.
But “knowing” alone means almost nothing, according to Albert Einstein. One of my favorite quotes of his comes to mind: “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”
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