“What has she done wrong?” I muttered to myself when passing the lakeside home of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on University Avenue in Yangon early this week. There was a particular reason for my excursion: I wanted to experience for myself the emptiness of the house on the eve of her 76th birthday, which falls today.
These days, barbed-wire barricades and security forces deployed outside prevent anyone from approaching the house at No. 54 University Avenue. Before, when Myanmar was free, foreign tourists and local people, no doubt including many from the country’s various regions and states, could occasionally be spotted in front of the gate, drawn by their admiration for the owner of this house, taking photographs and even peeking inside the compound.
The house has lost its master; she is a prisoner once again, this time in an unknown location in Naypyitaw.
Putting aside emotion, a simple fact we can state about her is this: She is a leader that Myanmar’s dictators and ruling generals have always wanted to be rid of. That’s why she has been arrested yet again, and it’s why they overthrew her legitimate government on Feb. 1.
It’s a bitter truth—one that the citizens of Myanmar are repeatedly forced to swallow.
Another fact that can’t be denied or manipulated is that she is the country’s most popular political leader. This is indisputable; she and her party, the National League for Democracy, won landslide victories in every election they contested over the past three decades.
That’s a bitter truth that consecutive generals have found impossible to swallow.
So, “What has she done wrong?” The only thing “wrong” with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the irreconcilability of those two truths. She will always be the military leadership’s bête noire, and to the people of Myanmar she will always be their cherished leader.
In a normal country, her popularity would not be “wrong” politically or in principle. It would just be the people’s choice—a democratic norm.
Sadly, however, Myanmar is still a country in which those who wield the power of the gun can erase the will of the people and jail an elected leader.
That’s wrong politically and democratically, but also morally. It renders Myanmar uncivilized in a way that few countries are in this 21st century. This latest coup led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing can be likened to a gang rape at gunpoint. The entire population was violated on Feb. 1. What have the country and its people done wrong? Well… the majority of them cast their votes for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in November’s election. That’s it. Three months later, they found themselves living under this terrible military dictatorship.
Myanmar and its people are among the unluckiest countries in the world. But they have done nothing wrong. It doesn’t mean for a moment that the people of Myanmar don’t deserve a civilized or democratic society. Even in the fleeting period of fledgling democracy allowed them over the past decade they more than proved their political maturity and desire for a civilized society.
The idea that the organic will of the people and their civilized spirit can be crushed through force of arms is one bitter “truth” that no one can accept.
Nonetheless, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi finds herself in custody once again on her 76th birthday. This is the 15th birthday she has marked in custody since she was first detained in July 1989. Since then, she has spent 15 years under arrest at her lakeside house in Yangon and now in the capital.
She and the other political activists and politicians held in jails or otherwise in custody are not the only prisoners, however. The country’s entire population of nearly 55 million people are now prisoners in their own land, deprived of their freedoms. Myanmar itself has become a gigantic prison.
As for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, it appears she has begun another cycle as a prisoner after enjoying 10 years of freedom as an elected member of Parliament and later the country’s de facto leader as State Counselor. Under military rule, it’s hard to see her regaining her liberty in the near future, as the regime has brought multiple bogus legal cases against her.
A major difference this time is her age, at 76. If she is to serve the kind of lengthy imprisonment imposed on her under previous military regimes led by senior generals Saw Maung and Than Shwe, her political life could be finished, let alone the implications for her on a personal level.
That’s yet another bitter truth, one that almost everyone except for the generals and their apologists finds hard to contemplate.
Coup maker Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing won’t be taking any chances this time; he has learned from the experience of his mentors, who failed to finish her off. He obviously feels it has fallen to him to get the job done. If so, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to spend more birthdays in detention, just as she did in her previous decade-and-a-half of confinement.
Determined to ensure that her political life, if not her whole life, is over, the generals, equipped with their guns and their wicked intent, most likely intend to detain her until she dies.
But what Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy generals, and perhaps their advisers, simply fail to grasp is that with or without Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the people of Myanmar will continue to pursue their long-held goal: a free and democratic society in which they can live with dignity as human beings. They will always reject their current dreadful life under the military boot. Politically speaking, they demand—and will continue their struggle to build—a genuine federal democracy.
Like their predecessors, the generals behind the current regime lack the sense to see that the struggle of the Myanmar people will not end if the junta succeeds in making Daw Aung San Suu Kyi vanish from the political stage.
The generals have never understood that the approach they have taken in the past and continue to take—seizing and holding power at the point of a gun—brings only stronger defiance of them and their system, the military dictatorship. Nor do they understand that by believing in the power of the gun so fully, and oppressing the country so brutally, they are only further entrenching their notorious reputations, both for themselves as individuals and for the Tatmadaw as an institution.
What’s wrong with these generals? Well… To put it simply—and setting aside emotion—these are not thoughtful men. Just a bunch of stupid military officers who can only conceive of politics as grabbing power by force, and whose only conception of governance is ruling with an iron fist, with no concern for the will of the people. They don’t realize that such a state of affairs cannot last forever. One day they will face retribution for their actions. For now they are already, in the eyes of the people, utterly disgraced.
As for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? Shunning emotions again, she is not immortal, but many people will honor and remember her for her love of Myanmar and her struggle for the people.
Naing Khit is a commentator on political affairs.
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