Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: The contradictions and the beauty
Jamil Maidan Flores
“Stubborn!” You’d think it was a political opponent who said that of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But it was a supporter. “Inflexible!” It was not a detractor who said that but an admirer. Sometimes the people who care for her and fervently wish to see her assume the national leadership one day feel frustrated because she can hold on to a principled position far longer than they think necessary. Some have given voice to their irritation.
But when it is really crucial to be flexible, she has shown that she can bend with the wind so that the cause for which she stands does not break. For instance, in 1988 when her National League for Democracy (NLD) planned to march on the streets of Yangon, the military authorities warned its members sternly of a crackdown if they proceeded with the march. She and her followers insisted they would march anyway. But when the generals packed the streets with soldiers, she quickly called the march off rather than risk a bloody confrontation.
Many landmark events have taken place in Myanmar since then. While she was under house arrest in 1990, the NLD won a general election by a landslide but the military simply dumped the result in the trash can. For most of a period of more than 23 years she was either under house arrest or under “protective custody,” and always banned from holding office.
In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; her son Alexander received it for her. In 1999 her British husband died in the United Kingdom. Afraid that she might not be allowed to return, she couldn’t be with him in his last moments. In November 2010 a nominally civilian government claimed victory in elections boycotted by the NLD and widely denounced as rigged. Days after that election, Aung San Suu Kyi was finally freed from house arrest.
On the basis of that questionable election, Thein Sein, a former general, assumed the presidency in March 2011 and surprised the world by launching democratic reforms, restoring freedom of expression and releasing a considerable number of political prisoners.
Impressed by these reforms, ASEAN approved Myanmar’s chairmanship of the association in 2014 and sought the lifting of long-standing sanctions on Myanmar by the Western world. Putting her faith in the sincerity of President Thein Sein as a reformist, Aung San Suu Kyi decided to take part in Myanmar’s national political process.
Thus in a parliamentary by-election last April, she and her party won 43 of 45 vacant seats in a landslide victory. But when parliament opened, she and the other winning candidates of her party refused to take an oath of office that would oblige them to “safeguard the constitution” — the same constitution they had vowed to amend. They wanted to use the word “respect” instead of “safeguard.”
In the ensuing stalemate, a fear gripped well-wishers all over the world that Aung San Suu Kyi and her elected party members would never take their seats in parliament. Once again the word went around that she was “stubborn” and “inflexible.”
But after a seven-day boycott, she must have felt she had made her point and decided to take the oppressive oath after all. “Politics is a matter of give and take,” she explained. “We’re not giving up. We are just yielding to the wishes of the people.”
Precisely. If they did not take the oath, they would have frustrated the wish of the people that they sit in parliament and provide the debate so necessary to a democratic system.
Like many other great leaders, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has apparently contradictory qualities. Her notorious stubbornness is often belied by a sudden act of flexibility at the exact right moment. And because of her physical frailty the strength of her political will is all the more astounding.
She was married to a foreigner and spent much of her younger days abroad yet nobody belongs to her beloved Burma more than she does. Before she married the late Michael Aris, an Oxford don, she wrote to him: “I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them.” For her devotion to her people, the two who deeply loved each other suffered years of separation. She could not be with him when he, dying of cancer, needed her most.
Yet another contradiction: she is very widely admired but also often underestimated. For example when veteran Filipino diplomat Sonia Brady was about to be sent to Myanmar as ambassador in the mid-1990s, she asked then President Fidel V. Ramos if he had any special instructions for her. Said Ramos: “Teach the Lady how to organize a People Power Revolution.”
In fact there was nothing that Sonia or Ramos himself could teach her about people power. By then she had years of experience running a civil disobedience campaign inspired by the examples of Mahatma Gandhi of India and Martin Luther King Jr. of the United States — both of whom she studied intensively. And unlike Cory Aquino of the Philippines, she did not have the luxury of being backed by a reformist military force led by a popular general named Fidel V. Ramos. The entire ruling military establishment in Myanmar was united against her.
When the military authorities finally allowed Ambassador Brady to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, the latter did ask a lot of questions about the ‘People Power’ revolution in the Philippines — probably out of curiosity and respect for the Philippine experience.
After that visit, the Philippine ambassador to Myanmar was roundly denounced at working dinners of ASEAN ministerial meetings for serving as “postmistress of the Lady.” It transpired that Ambassador Brady had hand carried letters of Aung San Suu Kyi to the other embassies in Myanmar for transmission to their respective foreign ministers. Most probably, when the complaint reached President Ramos, he responded with an impish chuckle.
Problems and solution
No doubt the government of Myanmar is a gentler one today, one that is fast earning the trust of the rest of the world. On the other hand, there is no denying the swarm of problems: military abuses here and there; many prisoners of conscience remain in jail; sporadic clashes at times erupt between minority forces and the army. Many victims of Cyclone Nargis have not received the help they need. And, of course, there’s corruption.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s response to these and all the problems of Myanmar is simplicity itself: first, human rights and all the basic freedoms must be restored, then political and economic reform will be so much easier. Second, the only legitimate and effective means of achieving these ends are non-violent. Third, government and society must stick to principles that are always distinct from personalities, factions and tactical issues. And finally, individual and collective discipline must be practiced by everyone, including herself and her party.
She has been profuse in her appreciation of Indonesia’s efforts to encourage the Myanmar government to pursue reforms and make them “irreversible.”
Recent videos show her speaking with humor and ebullience. Her good looks when she was a young woman have not been lost, although the long years of isolation and persecution have taken a toll on her body and her face. Still, her youthful beauty does not compare with the charisma that she casually wears these days. Even during tense moments, people say, she glows when she reaches out to another person. Nobody is unimportant to her.
When she sees a lone woman in a mostly-male delegation calling on her, she takes her aside, looks her sweetly in the eye and says, “I would like to see more ladies like you come to Burma. Come to Burma more often and let’s get together.” And instantly she connects. The warmth she gives to the moment becomes unforgettable.
A fitting tribute
Ann Pasternak Slater, a friend and former neighbor of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in London, who is a literary scholar and niece of the great Russian novelist Boris Pasternak, has paid tribute to the beauty of her personality by quoting lines from a lyric poem by William Butler Yeats. Slater, however, misquotes and does not quote all the pertinent lines. I quote them here with just one word changed to fit the intended tribute:
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But mankind loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face…
She is indeed a soul on a pilgrimage, but not a personal one. She is leading her people on a pilgrimage to a future in which Myanmar becomes the Burma that was the dream of her father, Aung San, who is also the father of her country.