Guest Column

A Call to Action on Behalf of Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

By Brenna Gonderman 18 June 2021

“Every thought, every word, and every action that adds to the positive and the wholesome is a contribution to peace. Each and every one of us is capable of making such a contribution.”
― Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi turns 76 this week, detained in an unknown location, the civility of house arrest far removed.

On May 24 of this year, images surfaced of Myanmar’s State Counselor and Nobel Peace Laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, bound and guarded in a military tribunal, where she faces a sentence of life in prison, based on fraudulent charges from a corrupt and torturous totalitarian regime, led by the general-turned-dictator, Min Aung Hlaing.

In light of the recent military coup in Myanmar, it is of the utmost importance that we critically reevaluate the narrative in which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been wrongly vilified by the media. We must remember who she is and what she stands for. This is not a trivial matter, but one of immense significance. She is a bastion of hope and a beacon of democracy for the people of her country, and particularly for those who have been detained, tortured or silenced since the onset of the coup.

The military takeover, initiated on Feb. 1, began with the seizure of State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other prominent, democratically elected leaders, including Myanmar President U Win Myint.

The Tatmadaw is the official name for Myanmar’s military, but given the explicit disregard for the rule of law—witnessed around the world—it is no longer a term that can accurately be used to describe the armed forces. Instead, the regime could be best recognized by the acronym MAH-SAC, or Min Aung Hlaing’s State Administration Council, a terrorist body that can be likened to the early stages of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Since the takeover, Myanmar’s ongoing Civil Disobedience Movement can be seen live on social media. Each day that passes brings about new civilian deaths.

During this reign of terror, 864 people have been killed and 4,893 have been imprisoned, many of whom have been tortured. These political prisoners are artists, poets, professors, doctors, nurses, teachers and democratically elected civilians who have dared to speak out against this assault on universal human rights. These activists are an inspiration for democracy in action—democracy, in its purest and rawest form.

This is the movement that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has worked tirelessly to achieve, for nearly 40 years, starting in 1988 with her “Revolution of the Spirit”—a nationwide struggle to awaken a love of freedom and achieve peace throughout her country.

I bring this situation to your attention with a degree of intimacy: Having worked in Southeast Asia from 2016 to 2019, I visited Myanmar many times. During a particular visit in 2017, I was invited to visit Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha, a renowned meditation center in Yangon. It was here that I met Alan Clements, one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Buddhist monk in what was then Burma; and it was here that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and many other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) received classical Buddhist training from the late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw.

Clements intimately knows Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He met with her over six months inside her home in Yangon, shortly after her release from her first six years under house arrest in July 1995. The conversations they shared ultimately formed the basis of Clements’ internationally acclaimed book, “Aung San Suu Kyi, The Voice of Hope: Conversations with Alan Clements”. This book and Clements’ recently released, four-volume set, “Burma’s Voices of Freedom” (co-authored with Fergus Harlow), highlight the ethical and spiritual principles of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her courageous approach to bringing democracy to Myanmar.

When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, along with her political party, the NLD, won the general election in 2015, she addressed three key issues: to amend the military conceived 2008 constitution; establish rule of law; and bring about internal peace. She stated, “We need peace in our country. We have had armed conflict in our country from the very first day it became independent on Jan. 4, 1948. We are now at a juncture of our history where we have the opportunity to put an end to internal conflict.”

Understanding Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s resolve to meet these goals—while facing the constant challenge to bring about reconciliation in a multiethnic country that has been traumatized by decades of violence—we can begin to understand the deeply nuanced appeal she will make three years later in The Hague in front of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where crimes against the Rohingya in Rakhine State were alleged to violate the Genocide Convention treaty that Burma ratified in 1956.

In addressing the allegations, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi clearly stated, “Even before the events of 2016-2017 Muslim, Buddhist and other communities in Rakhine faced what the Kofi Annan Advisory Committee described as complex challenges of low development and poverty rooted in enduring social conflict between the communities.” She outlined the ways in which the Myanmar civilian government is committed to addressing these challenges, and to bringing about religious tolerance.

These efforts included a campaign to expedite citizenship; an assurance that all children born in Rakhine, regardless of religious background, would be issued birth certificates; and that more scholarships would be awarded to Muslim students, providing them the opportunity to attend classes at universities across the country.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did not seek to deny or cover up the tragedy that occurred in Rakhine State in 2016 and 2017. Nor did she try to justify the military’s brutal actions against the Rohingya minority. By highlighting the cyclical violence that has taken place within the community, she sought to present the full complexity of the situation and demonstrate the need for a commitment to the process of truth and reconciliation. She wanted an opportunity to address these war crimes through a domestic, criminal justice process that would build credibility in emergent democratic institutions.

Failing to recognize the nuanced nature of this position, the majority of the media portrayed her as a handmaiden for genocide. This could not be further from the truth.

Those who know the history of Myanmar intimately, know the tightrope Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been forced to navigate in her unwavering pursuit to bring freedom and democracy to her people, and reconciliation between ethnic groups nationwide. In 2008, the NLD was prohibited from participating in the establishment of a national constitution. Min Aung Hlaing and his military have consistently discredited the NLD’s sweeping wins in general elections; oftentimes, the so-called “free and fair elections” have been used as a way to target members of the opposition for arrest and/or torture.

Clements said it best in a Facebook livestream posted on May 24, the day pictures first circulated of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s abduction: “In 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi began what would be called ‘a revolution of the spirit.’ She employed, along with the people of her country, an epic expression of non-violence. But it is deeper than that=—beyond a willingness to refuse using weapons—it is the absolute refusal to villainize or demonize. The radiance of making friends with enemies. Refraining from violence. Refraining from vilification. The courageous, open-heartedness to reconcile even with those who persecute and torture. It is beyond imagination that today this woman, along with the president and numerous other elected civilians sit in a military prison in some undisclosed location in the country waiting to be sentenced to a life in prison.”

This is a clear moment for decisive action. We must demand that she be released immediately. We must demand it now. She is more than just a symbol. She is a truly inspirational female leader on the global stage and deserves to live out her remaining days in peace, celebrated for her legacy, rather than vilified in ignorance.

Right now, the people of Myanmar are fighting for the most essential form of freedom. They are fighting for the ability to think, feel and openly express what is true in their hearts, minds and conscience. To speak without fear of being taken from their homes in the dead of night and imprisoned or tortured.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi stands for these brave women and men and we must stand with—and for—her and the people of her country. Please speak out at this urgent moment and let your voice be heard.

Brenna Gonderman is an independent thinker who is dedicated to the progress of democracy. She has spent many years living and working in Southeast Asia.

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