Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Burmese Champion of Freedom

IN a two-story, colonial-style house in Rangoon, Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, a slender, resolute woman with penetrating eyes, is about to begin her third year entirely cut off from the outside world. Her telephone has been disconnected. No mail reaches her, not even from her husband and two children. Soldiers guard the house and do not allow passersby to stand and stare.Half a world away, in Strasbourg, France, the European Parliament has just awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Aung San Suu Kyi, whose name, we are told, means "a bright collection of strange victories." So far, in the world's eyes, the victories seem meager. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of the revered Bogyoke (Great General) Aung San, founder of independent Burma. The first 40 years of her life were spent as student, scholar, devoted wife, and mother, in Burma, India, and Britain. But she never forgot who she was, nor that the day might come when she would have to devote herself entirely to the service of her country. "Before we married nearly 20 years ago," writes her husband, British Tibetologist Dr. Michael Aris, "Suu asked me to agree never to stand between her and her country or to prevent her from fulfilling what she sees as a fundamental duty to her people." He made that promise, and she retained Burmese citizenship for herself and her two sons. Her moment came when the democracy movement erupted onto the streets of Rangoon and other cities in the summer of 1988. Burma's harsh military regime responded to student protests for freedom and democracy with live bullets. But Aung San Suu Kyi boldly proclaimed Gandhian nonviolence as her only weapon. She spent her brief year in public life (August 1988 to July 1989) taking her message of freedom and democracy to the people in the cities and villages of Burma while simultaneously trying to instill the disciplines of nonviolence. ON July 20, 1989, perhaps emboldened by China's crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests (June 4), Burma's military junta confined Aung San Suu Kyi to her own home, allowing no one to go in or out and, within weeks, cutting her off from her own family. But the flame she had lit remained alive in people's hearts. On May 27 last year, it appeared the democratic cause had won its greatest victory when, despite months of government harassment and intimidation, the League for National Democracy which she had founded scored a landslide in constituent assembly elections. The triumph was shortlived. Not only did the regime refuse to release Aung San Suu Kyi, it arrested hundreds of her supporters, including party leaders and elected legislators, torturing some, jailing many, and cowing the few that remained into disavowing her as their leader. Since then the world has heard little from Burma, renamed Myanmar by the regime. When television screens explode with scenes of troops firing at unarmed civilians marching peacefully, the whole world sits up and takes notice. But the human cost of such demonstrations is agonizingly high, and cannot be sustained over a long period of time. What is required of citizens of conscience worldwide is that, even when the television screens are empty, they do not allow themselves to forget the woman who so poigna ntly symbolizes Burma's thwarted hopes for freedom and democracy. In an unpublished manuscript released on the occasion of the Sakharov award, Aung San Suu Kyi makes the arresting statement: "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it." She recognizes the fear lurking in the minds of the soldiers that seem so thoroughly in control of their people, as well as the fear in the minds of the oppressed. "It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear," she writes. "Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.