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Suu Kyi discusses securing freedom


Chiang Mai (Mizzima) - Aung San Suu Kyi says the mission of her political party is to restore the “whole fabric” of Burmese society not just exchange one government for another.

At a time when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) faces a threat to its legal status, the pro-democracy leader told the audience of the second BBC Reith Lecture Tuesday that securing freedom meant more than just winning the right to rule.

Aung San Su Kyi talks to the press at Ananda Phaya in Bagan, Burma, where she is on a four-day, personal pilgrimage, her first trip outside of Rangoon since she was released from house arrest. Photo: MizzimaThe radio lecture, recorded secretly in Burma, on the subject of “Securing Freedom” was played to a select audience at the BBC studios in London, offering speakers on a panel the opportunity to ask questions of Suu Kyi live.

This was the second of two prestigious lectures, the first broadcast on 28 June.

Both programmes were recorded prior to her trip Bagan, the first time in several years that she has been able to travel outside Rangoon.

In her second lecture focused on the subject of dissent and the difficult role of the NLD over the last two decades, Suu Kyi said the position of her beleaguered party got a “bit messy” while she was under house arrest.

“A lot happened while I was under house arrest, cut off from the world outside,” she said in her prepared presentation. “Two of the most notable events, I was tempted to say mishaps, that happened in Burma were the referendum in 2008, followed by the general election last November. The referendum was supposed to show - or at least the Burmese military junta hoped it would show - that more than 90 per cent of voters were in favour of a new constitution; a constitution which would give the military the right to take over all powers of government whenever it was thought necessary for the good of the nation.”

As she pointed out, the first general elections in nearly 20 years were meant to follow “according to what the generals rather absurdly called their ‘road map to disciplined democracy’.”

Suu Kyi said that for her party to take part in the new elections set by the junta for November 2010 they had to undertake to protect and defend the constitution, drawn up two years earlier, and to expel any of their members who were in prison, including those who were appealing against their sentences.

“This included me as I would have to be expelled if the NLD wanted to register,” she said. “Instead it chose to carry on its right to remain as a political party in the law courts, although we were fully aware of the lack of an independent judiciary in Burma.”

She relates that when she was released from house arrest in November, she faced a barrage of questions from reporters including whether or not the NLD had become an unlawful organization, and how she saw the role of the party now that there was an official opposition which didn’t include the NLD. It was instead the handful of parties whose representatives now occupy less than 15 per cent of the seats in the Burmese National Assembly.

Her stock response was that the NLD was “not an unlawful organization because we had not infringed any of the terms of the unlawful organizations law.

It was a little more difficult to answer questions about the role of the party after the 2010 elections.

This was “more difficult because the NLD’s position has been ambiguous ever since the elections held in 1990 when we won more than four-fifths of the vote and shocked what was then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the official name of the Burmese military regime.”

As she noted, there are countries where elections have been rigged or hijacked or where the results have been disputed or denied, but Burma is the only one where the results have been officially acknowledged in the state gazette, followed by nothing.

“Nothing was done to provide a real role for the winning party or elected representatives in spite of earlier promises by leaders of the junta that the responsibility of the government would be handed over to the winners once the elections were over and the army would go back quietly to their barracks. The most notable outcome of the elections in 1990 was the systematic repression of all parties and organisations, formal or informal, as well as individuals who persisted in demanding that the desire of the people of Burma for democratic governance be fulfilled.”

Suu Kyi said her party had won, but this was the beginning of lean years for the NLD. “The party made determined efforts to keep itself alive - alive but certainly not kicking,” she said. “To casual observers, it began to look moribund. Only the year before the chairman of the party, U Tin Oo, and other key members of the Movement for Democracy were imprisoned and I had been placed under house arrest.”

Suu Kyi said that when she and U Tin Oo were released six years later, they found that many of their most effective activists were still in prison, had gone into exile or had died - some of them while they were in custody. Others were in poor health as a result of harsh years spent in jails that did not even provide the bare minimum of medical care. Most of their offices had been forced to shut down. Their activities were severely curtailed by a slew of rules and regulations, and their every move watched closely by the ubiquitous military intelligence (MI).

“The MI - as some refer to it with lugubrious familiarity - could drag any of us away at any time - they preferred the dead of night - on any charge that took their fancy,” she said. “Yet in the midst of such unrelenting persecution, we had still remained an official political party, unlike today, and we began to be referred to as ‘the opposition’. So here we were in opposition, but not the official opposition. Should we accept that we were the opposition, after all, because we were in opposition to the government, whether or not that government is legitimate?”

In 1997, the State Law and Order Restoration Council was renamed the State Peace and Development Council.

“The official explanation was that the new name indicated it was time for the junta to move on to bigger and better things, as they had succeeded in their declared intention of establishing law and order,” she said. “Considering that the Burmese expression for law and order translates literally as quiescent, cowering, crushed and flattened, perhaps we’re not far from the truth.

“The regime’s version of law and order was a state of affairs to which we were thoroughly opposed: a nation of quiescent, cowering, crushed and flattened citizens was the very antithesis of what we were trying to achieve. The shape of the NLD began to take on a sharper contour as we faced up to the challenges of the struggle to survive as a political entity under military dictatorship.”

She said they sought ideas and inspirations in their culture and history, in the struggles for revolutionary change in other countries, in the thoughts of philosophers and the opinions of observers and academics, in the words of critics, in the advice of their supporters and friends.

“We had to find ways and means of operating as effectively as possible within the parameters imposed on us by the junta while striving at the same time to extend the frontiers of possibility. Certainly we could not carry out the functions that would normally be expected of an opposition party.”

As repression intensified, she said those in the NLD felt their essential nature to be more and more distant from that of a conventional opposition. “We were recognized as the political party with the strongest support, both at home and abroad, and we carried the burden of responsibility that goes with such recognition. But we had none of the privileges that would have been accorded to such a party in a working democracy and barely any of the basic rights of a legitimate political organization. We were at once much more and much less than an opposition.”

Suu Kyi sought to cast the pro-democracy struggle in grander terms. “In one of the first public speeches I made in 1988, I suggested that we were launching out on our second struggle for independence. The first, in the middle of the last century, had brought us freedom from colonial rule. The second, we hope, would bring us freedom from military dictatorship.”

She saw history repeating itself but with a difference. “The prominent role students played when they rose up in the demonstrations of 1988 evoked images of the students who had swept the country along with them in their demonstrations for independence in the 1930s. Some of these students of a past era had become prominent national figures and served as members of the post-independence government or as party leaders until they were forcefully removed from the political arena after the military coup of 1962. Many of these veteran independence fighters were quick to join the movement for democracy and thus linked the new struggle to the old one.”

Yet there were many differences between the two, she said, of which the most obvious was while their parents had fought against a foreign power, they “were engaged in combat with antagonists who were of the same nation, the same race, the same colour, the same religion. Another difference, pivotal though seldom recognized as such, was that while the colonial government was authoritarian, it was significantly less totalitarian than the junta that came into power in 1988.”

She recounted how a well-known writer who had joined into the Independence Movement as a young student, and who had engaged in clandestine work for the resistance during the Japanese occupation, told her in 1989 that she thought the challenges they had to face were far tougher than the ones with which she and her contemporaries had had to contend. Before and after the Second World War the rule of law protected the independence movement from extreme measures by the British administration.

“When the war and the Japanese Army came to the country, the presence of the newly created Burmese Army, commanded by my father, acted as a buffer between the resistance and the worst elements of the occupation forces. We could draw inspiration from the triumph of our forebears, but we could not confine ourselves to our own history in the quest for ideas and tactics that could aid our own struggle.

“We had to go beyond our own colonial experience,” she said.

Suu Kyi said the current regime meanwhile preferred to remain shackled to the past, blaming colonialism for all the ills of the nation and branding the NLD and its supporters new colonialists.

She said she and her party scanned the world for ideas and particularly the inspiration from their neighbour India and the Indian Independence Movement and the thoughts and philosophies of its leaders, looking for what might be relevant or useful.

Mohandas Gandhi’s teachings on non-violent civil resistance and the way in which he had put his theories into practice have become part of the working manual of those who would change authoritarian administrations through peaceful means, she said.

“I was attracted to the way of non-violence, but not on moral grounds, as some believe,” Suu Kyi said. “Only on practical, political grounds.”

This is not quite the same as the ambiguous or pragmatic or mixed approaches to non-violence that have been attributed to Gandhi’s satyagraha or Dr Martin Luther King’s civil rights, she said. “It is simply based on my conviction that we need to put an end to the tradition of regime change through violence, a tradition which has become the running sore of Burmese politics.”

When the military crushed the uprisings of 1988 by shooting down unarmed demonstrators with a brutal lack of discrimination or restraint, hundreds of students and other activists fled across the border to Thailand, she said. Many of them were convinced that those who lived by the gun could only be defeated by the gun, and decided to form student armies for democracy.

“I have never condemned and shall never condemn the path they chose because there had been ample cause for them to conclude the only way out of repressive rule was that of armed resistance,” Suu Kyi said. “However, I myself rejected that path because I do not believe that it would lead to where I would wish my nation to go.”

As she noted, those who take up arms to free themselves from unjust domination are seen as freedom fighters. They may be fighting for a whole country or people in the name of patriotism or ideology, or for a particular racial or ethnic or religious group in the name of equality and human rights. They are all fighting for freedom.

“When arms are not involved ‘activists’ seem to have become the generic name for those who are fighting for a political cause: civil rights activists, anti-apartheid activists, human rights activists, democracy activists,” she said. “So do we belong to the last two categories since we are constantly speaking out for human rights and democracy? To say that those of us in Burma who are involved in the movement for democracy are democracy activists would be accurate, but it is too narrow a description to reflect fully the essential nature of our struggle.”

The NLD secretary-general said a scholar comparing Indonesia under President Suharto to Burma under army dictatorship wrote that in Burma’s case the military had “held a coup against civilian politics in general”.

“In light of this insightful observation, it can be deduced that the mission of the NLD was not merely to engage in political activities but to restore the whole fabric of our society that civilians might be assured of their rightful space,” she noted. “We were not in the business of merely replacing one government with another, which could be considered the job of an opposition party. Nor were we simply agitating for particular changes in the system as activists might be expected to do. We were working and living for a cause that was the sum of our aspirations for our people, which were not, after all, so very different from the aspirations of peoples elsewhere.”

She said that in spite of the stringent efforts of the military regime to isolate them from the rest of the world, they never felt alone in their struggle.

Despite her restrictions under house arrest, Suu Kyi said the radio was her window on the world. “From the radio that I learned of the breaching of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the moves towards constitutional change in Chile, the progress of democratisation in South Korea, the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.”

These freedom struggles were inspirational. “When I was released from house arrest, I took every opportunity to speak to our people about the courage and sufferings of black South Africans, about living in truth, about the power of the powerless, about the lessons we could learn from those for whom their struggle was their life, as our struggle is our life.”

She said that because she spoke so often about the East European movement for democracy, she found herself being described as a “dissident”.

She recounts that Vaclav Havel of the democracy movement  in Czechoslovakia was not enthusiastic about the term “dissident” because it had been imposed by Western journalists on him and others in the human rights movement.

He then went on to explain in detail what meaning should be put on dissidents and the dissident movement in the context of what was happening in his country, she said. He held that the basic job of a dissident movement was to serve the truth - that is to serve the real aims of life - and that this endeavour should develop into a defence of the individual and his or her right to a free and truthful life. That is a defence of human rights and a struggle to see the laws respected.

Suu Kyi said this seemed to describe “very satisfactorily” what the NLD had been doing over the years “and I happily accepted that we were dissidents.”

The official status of the NLD matters little, she said. What matters is the basic job to act as dissidents. 

In answer to a question from the audience in London, Suu Kyi warned that people should not be fooled by the change the present government is trying to present to the world.

“So far as I can see, there have been no real changes yet,” she said. “There have been lots of very beautiful words, but those are not enough.”

She said she was disappointed by the limit support the democracy movement had received from major countries around the world.

Suu Kyi said she wished there were more leaders who were “true to the values for which they fought; once they have succeeded in their struggle not to forget those who are still struggling.”


Last Updated ( Wednesday, 06 July 2011 16:38 )  

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