Aung San Suu Kyi speaks out against Burma's military junta
The world has bid goodbye to two remarkable women this year. Now maybe it will have time to pay attention to another remarkable woman. Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced “awng-san soo-chee”) is still alive as this is written, and the cause of democracy she represents not only threatens the repressive military government she is fighting but might hold out hope to much of the rest of the world. Although Suu Kyi has been isolated in a house in Rangoon for most of the past eight years, and her message has been muffled through the efforts of Burma’s ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a Vancouver resident who once studied as a Buddhist monk in the country is determined she be heard.
Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, who was elected Burmese head of state in 1947. She was less than three years old when assassins burst into a cabinet meeting room and riddled her father and other members of the government with automatic-weapons fire shortly before they were to take office. It was an inauspicious beginning for democracy in a country that had been ruled by the British since 1886, and Aung San’s colleague, U Nu, was deposed in a military coup in 1958. New elections returned U Nu to the prime ministership in 1960, but in 1962 the head of the military junta, Ne Win, took power again.
Ne Win outlawed all political groups but his own Burmese Socialist Program Party, abolished the constitution and courts, nationalized farms and businesses, and tried to isolate Burma from foreign influences and investment. Indian and Pakistani residents were forced out, western journalists were barred, and tourism, as well as movement within the country by citizens, was restricted. A quarter-century of repression, kleptocracy, and arbitrary rule resulted in Burma applying to the United Nations for the benefits of least-developed-nation status in 1987. The patience of the people was being worn thin by uncontrolled inflation and food shortages.
By March 1988, groups of university students had begun demonstrations against the Ne Win government, which responded with tear gas and bullets. The brutality of the government did not stop the democratic movement, and the workings of chance were shortly to give it a leader. Suu Kyi by this time had been living in England for 23 years, had married scholar Michael Aris, and resided in Oxford with her husband and two sons. News of a stroke suffered by her mother brought Suu Kyi to Rangoon in April 1988. She had visited Burma several times before, and this time she was fated not to leave.
On July 23, 1988, Ne Win announced his resignation and called for a referendum on the country’s political future. When his BSPP colleagues opposed the action, millions of Burmese demonstrated for democracy, and on August 8 government troops opened fire on them, reportedly massacring thousands. On August 26, at a rally in Rangoon, Suu Kyi announced she was entering the struggle for democracy. “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to what was going on,” she has said of that decision. In a staged “coup” on September 18, Ne Win handed over power to 21 military commanders, who were dubbed SLORC. Wholesale arrests of political activists began, arrests that have continued ever since.
In a country that is 85-percent Buddhist, Suu Kyi has evolved a political philosophy that incorporates Buddhist precepts such as nonviolence, honesty, truthfulness, respect for others, and sobriety. She adds to Buddhist principles of compassion, conciliation, and consensus the pragmatic political principles of compromise, toleration, and understanding. She wears orchids in her hair and tells SLORC that its best protection is to make the transfer to democracy in the context of a loving gift, an act of joy. SLORC’s reaction to her seems to be equal parts astonishment, incomprehension, and fear.
The repatriate had moved from being the spouse of an Oxford academic to helping keep the democracy movement alive through SLORC’s initial attempts to stamp it out. It was to the whole country’s surprise that SLORC announced open multiparty elections for the spring of 1990.
More than 200 parties were soon registered, including the National League for Democracy, cofounded by Suu Kyi. The kind of democracy SLORC was interested in became apparent as the elections approached. Parties opposing the government were harassed, and forcible relocations of citizens from urban centres to newly created satellite towns seemed to concentrate on areas where supporters of the democracy movement lived. On July 20, 1989, several members of the NLD leadership were arrested and thrown in prison. Troops and barbed-wire barriers appeared around 54 University Avenue, where Suu Kyi lives, and she was placed under house arrest.
Suu Kyi is still at 54 University Avenue in Rangoon, where I have tried to telephone her about 200 times. Almost every call ends in a “systems busy” signal, a weirdly echoing ringback, or just a series of clicks and high-pitched tones. My hopes were raised early on when I got a man on the line who took my name and told me to call back in two hours, at which time I was unable to get through. Another time, I enlisted the help of a BC Tel operator, and the call was answered with a “hello” that echoed several times. My “hello” in reply was still echoing when the operator came back on. “You got through, but someone cut us off right away,” she said. The operators who patiently tried to assist usually ended up trying to raise a Burmese operator; no operator ever answered. (In other phone fun, the country’s Ottawa embassy returned one of my calls, and I was abruptly asked: “How did you get this number? Who gave it to you?” My answer—“Directory assistance”—elicited a noncommittal “Hm”.)
I was told that the best time to contact Suu Kyi’s house would be between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. PDT. The most surreal of these early-morning calls was when a woman’s voice answered and asked “Who are you?” Thinking I had reached the household staff, I readily replied and also supplied the answer to “Where are you from?” Then the questions were repeated. I asked for Suu Kyi. “No! No! No!” She passed the phone to another woman, who repeated the questions. They were still alternating, repeating the questions and giggling, when I hung up.
Alan Clements told me there would be days like that. I first met Clements in the spring of 1991, a few months after he had visited Burma for weeks on a two-day tourist visa, slipped away from the authorities, and finally taken his leave by being smuggled over the border into Thailand. His love of Burma and its people is well-founded. He first visited there in 1977, and in 1979 he became the first westerner to be granted a long-term visa to study Buddhism. He stayed until 1987, when his visa was not renewed amid the growing turmoil near the end of Ne Win’s rule. After his clandestine wanderings there in 1990, he wrote a book called Burma: The Next Killing Fields? and collaborated with Burma Project U.S.A. codirector Leslie Kean on another, Burma’s Revolution of the Spirit. He has contributed to a feature film about Burma and is working on another documentary based on repression and propaganda in Bosnia. His current residency in Vancouver is sponsored by the Dharma Forum, for which he conducts lectures on Buddhism and liberation philosophy. Most of the history of Burma related above is from his books.
Clements told me that playing with Suu Kyi’s phone is a favourite sport of SLORC. They cut the lines, let democracy supporters reconnect them, then cut them again. They create static and interruptions. (My brief conversation with the man who told me to call back took several minutes, with each of us having to repeat ourselves a half-dozen times.) Though Suu Kyi is not under house arrest now, University Avenue is barricaded, and armed soldiers still patrol outside the house.
Direct contact with Suu Kyi being difficult when not impossible, Clements returned to Burma once more in order to talk to her and get her message down in a form that could be conveyed to the world outside. Given his history, it is a wonder that Clements was allowed back into the country in December 1995 to see Suu Kyi and conduct a series of interviews, interviews that will be published in November in a book called The Voice of Hope.
“In all honesty, it’s a mystery to me and a mystery to Suu Kyi,” says Clements. “I would assume it’s nothing more than a sheer oversight on their part, or perhaps they’re just too preoccupied with repressing their own people to bother with little ol’ me.”
He offers a couple of possible explanations, one being that SLORC’s military-intelligence arm has been infected by the ideas of the democracy movement. “Maybe those people wanted to see me succeed in doing this book with Suu and just decided not to report it to the higher authorities, giving them just the minimum information of places and times.” The other explanation is that SLORC actually countenanced his activities, even extending his visa so the interviews could continue until March 1996, in the hope they could discover some valuable secrets.
“They very likely wanted to know what we were talking about, and therefore supported my stay by extending my visa, thinking they would copy or take the recordings, the computer disks, the notes. On my exit, the police searched for three hours to make a show of it.” Clements prefers to keep to himself how the material was gotten out of Burma, and he notes that it would not have done SLORC any good if they had seized it, citing a quote from Suu Kyi: “ ”˜There’s nothing I’m going to say to you I wouldn’t say to them,’ and that’s how genuine she is. The book stands on its own. That’s the power of truth. You have nothing to fear.”
(Incidentally, Bo Hla-Tint of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the Burmese government-in-exile in Washington, D.C., subscribes to the theory that SLORC’s seeming toleration of Clements was an oversight. “According to our experience, they have their problems, and military intelligence [personnel] are not that sophisticated,” says Hla-Tint. “They don’t have the necessary kind of systematic information collection into the background of people.”)
Clements is certainly banned from Burma now, but he continues to work for Suu Kyi’s cause. For the past month, he has been crisscrossing the continent, speaking about his book, about how Burma has been turned into a nation-sized prison, and about how one person, Suu Kyi, is taking a moral stand. “Burma is an archetypal situation in that, on the one hand, we have the modern-day apostle of nonviolence in Suu Kyi—as a woman, as a Nobel laureate, the epitome of peace—versus one of the longest-standing military dictatorships, right up there with [Fidel] Castro of Cuba.” Clements has two events scheduled locally, a lecture at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver at 949 West 49th Avenue next Friday (November 7), and a seminar at the Vancouver Masonic Building at 1495 West 8th Avenue next Saturday (November 8). At the lecture, there will be a video, smuggled out of Burma, showing Suu Kyi speaking to democracy-movement supporters there.
When the military placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, she demanded to be transferred to Rangoon’s Insein Prison, where the other NLD members were being held. She was refused, so she began a hunger strike that ended after 12 days when she was assured her colleagues were not being ill-treated and that their cases would be heard in court. (Some were, with the usual result being a long term of hard labour for vaguely defined crimes.) She was still under house arrest, and most of the NLD leadership was still in prison, when the elections were held on May 27, 1990. Those opposing the government had been muzzled through intimidation, through the outlawing of meetings of more than four people, and through the simple expedient of arresting prominent leaders such as Suu Kyi. SLORC was confident it had made victory for itself certain. After the polls closed, the state-controlled Working People’s Daily ran headlines announcing “The May 27 Election Is the Fairest, Freest, and Cleanest One Ever.” SLORC was stunned when the votes were counted. The National League for Democracy had won 392 out of 485 parliamentary seats. The military had won 10.
SLORC reacted by refusing to acknowledge the results and by cracking down even harder. Many newly elected members of parliament were arrested, and Hla-Tint says 29 of those are still in prison. He says 27 members of parliament went into exile, where 18 remain. The NLD, instead of becoming the government, became the symbol of opposition to SLORC, and its members were put under restrictions that included not being able to travel within Burma without state permission. According to Clements, the number of political prisoners reached as high as 30,000. Amnesty International says the arrests continue, with almost 2,000 arrested for political reasons in 1996, and the international human-rights organization has documented numerous accounts of torture, forced labour, and neglect leading to death.
Burma is important, says Clements, because it is the newest attempt at democracy in the world, and it is where democracy is most endangered. “In the May 1990 elections, the people voted for democracy. The dictators came in to impose themselves, bloodily, against the people’s will after setting up the elections themselves.
“That election result has been categorically annihilated by this clique of generals. To take their dismissing of the election results further, they have gone on a systematic rampage of repression directed towards the democratically elected leaders, arresting, imprisoning, in some cases torturing, many of the several hundred elected MPs. Others found it necessary to escape the country into exile. Still others were intimidated into silence. Local organizers were harassed through loss of jobs, threats, children not being allowed to attend school. In short, anyone involved in the democracy movement beyond the casting of a silent vote has been made to pay severe prices for their desire for a free and democratic nation. Overall, the entire population of 45 million people has been stepped on...economically, socially, and psychologically imposed upon in a climate of fear, where basic human rights are not just denied but are nonexistent.”
Neither in prison nor free, Suu Kyi remained at 54 University Avenue. SLORC often offered to release her into exile in Britain, and she unhesitatingly refused, despite what would become years of separation from her husband and children. The evident hope of SLORC was that the democracy movement would die and she would be forgotten. In The Voice of Hope, she tells Clements that her detention had the opposite effect.
“I think if the SLORC had not put me under house arrest, our movement would not have attracted so much interest. It’s always wrong to repress somebody whom you see as an enemy and who is without weapons. And SLORC, by being so harsh and oppressive in the way they have handled the opposition, has brought us a lot of sympathy in the country as well as throughout the rest of the world.” Her arrest has certainly helped cement her position as the leader of the NLD and the de jure leader of the people of Burma. She is no figurehead playing a role thrust on her because she is her father’s daughter. There is personal loyalty to the point of devotion in the voice of Hla-Tint when he expresses his hopes for his country by saying, “Everything can be negotiated, according to our leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.” (Daw is the Burmese female honorific, or term of respect.)
Suu Kyi spent her time after her arrest meditating, sewing, and listening to the radio. In December 1991, she learned from the BBC overseas service that she had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She had been nominated by Czech Republic president Václav Havel, and SLORC at the same time received a letter pleading for peace and free political debate that had been signed by nine Nobel laureates, including Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.
SLORC had no time to listen to Nobel laureates; it was busy transforming Burma. The country was renamed the Union of Myanmar, which remains its “official” designation. Between 1988 and the present, the army grew to 400,000 men from 180,000 in a country that has no external enemies. Enforced relocation continued as whole sections of Rangoon were levelled to make way for tourist accommodations, often built with conscripted labour. More forced relocations occurred in the countryside, where most of the 17 non-Burmese ethnic minorities had taken up arms against the regime. The Canadian Friends of Burma quotes aid workers in Thailand as estimating the number of Burmese ethnic refugees in that country at 120,000, with two to eight times that number driven from their homes by SLORC to become “internally displaced” refugees in their own country.
“Corruption exists everywhere throughout the country,” Suu Kyi says in The Voice of Hope. “You have to pay to get the most ordinary things done, such as renewing a car license. You even have to bribe hospital workers to perform necessary little services for patients. Corruption is endemic. Whoever has the authority can do whatever they want. At the village level the authorities refuse to do what they should do, unless they are bribed. But that does not apply to everybody. I know that there are some Village or Ward Law and Order Restoration Councils that are honest and try to help the people. This is why we need democracy. We need a system that does not depend on whether an individual wants to do what is right or not. The system should have checks and balances that prevent him from going along the wrong path.”
Despite the plight of Burma being well-known enough six years ago that the Nobel Prize committee thought it worth bringing Suu Kyi and her cause to the attention of the world, there has been precious little action by democratic governments to rein in the excesses of SLORC. It was only in April of this year that the U.S. applied partial sanctions, prohibiting new investments in the country but allowing those already in place to stay. After a meeting with the SLORC foreign-affairs minister in July, Canadian Foreign-Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy announced that Canada would also be taking steps. They turned out to be largely symbolic. Canada withdrew Burma’s General Preferential Tariff eligibility and placed the country on the Area Control List, making a permit necessary for all exports from Canada to Burma. Canadian exports to Burma are negligible, amounting to a few hundred thousand dollars’ worth per year.
Myanmar’s Ottawa embassy did not even wait for the Canadian sanctions to be announced before issuing its reaction. “The Canadian action, if it is implemented, will leave no choice to the Union of Myanmar but to resist any foreign, especially extraregional, interference in her internal political affairs to the best of her ability.”
In answer to questions sent by the Georgia Straight, the embassy dismissed any impact the U.S. and Canadian sanctions might have. “United States and Canada, both half-a-world away, have nominal trade relations (less than 10 per cent of investments, etc.) with Myanmar and thus economic hardships and loss of employment are not anticipated,” was the unattributed reply. In answer to the question of whether membership in the Association of South East Asian Nations would offset sanctions, the embassy wrote: “Myanmar and Laos have already become full members of ASEAN since end of July 1997 in spite of US and Canadian actions. The further development of Myanmar within ASEAN seem to be completely independent of any pressures from North America and Europe. The voids created by Western companies, if they do withdraw, will be filled in by companies from ASEAN countries and by other Asian countries such as China, Korea, and Japan.”
This attitude seems to be borne out by the recent divestment of its stake in the Yetagun gas project in the Andaman Sea by Texaco. According to a report in the Southeast Asia Post, a Vancouver-based biweekly compilation of stories from the region, the company maintains the pullout was decided on after an “asset review” and has nothing to do with the human-rights situation in Burma. The US$260-million stake is being sold to Britain’s Premier Oil, which plans to sell it to Petronas, the Malaysian state oil firm. But Hla-Tint, who serves as minister of North American and South American affairs for the Burmese government-in-exile, says the trading partners SLORC must rely on are more likely to be countries like Thailand and Indonesia rather than Japan and Korea, and he says economies in Southeast Asia are in disarray. “Indonesia has called in the International Monetary Fund to guarantee investment trust in the market,” he points out, and he says that both Indonesia and Thailand have seen their currencies drop in value by 35 percent or more since July. “They cannot help the SLORC.”
Perhaps as important to SLORC are some joint investments in resource development involving Canadian and U.S. companies, which continue unhampered by sanctions. Indochina Goldfields Ltd. is a Vancouver-based firm that in the past four years has spent more than US$60 million to acquire mineral rights, conduct exploration, and begin development of the Monywa copper project in north-central Burma. The Foreign Affairs Ministry announcement of Canadian sanctions came on August 7, and Indochina Goldfields had obviously been carefully considering its reaction beforehand. Its statement came out on August 8: “It would [be] irresponsible to our shareholders to put that investment in jeopardy by suspending further involvement,” wrote company president R. Edward Flood.
Flood’s news release emphasized the softness of the Canadian position. “It is important to note that the Canadian government is not suggesting that Canadian businesses should voluntarily terminate existing agreements covering current investments in Myanmar,” said Flood. “Before we committed Indochina Goldfields to investments in Myanmar in 1996, representatives of the company met with officials of the Canadian government in Ottawa. At no time did the Canadian government advise us against investing in Myanmar, or attempt to dissuade us from doing business in the country.”
Suu Kyi was released from house arrest on July 11, 1995. In May, there had been another series of arrests of NLD officials and supporters, and Suu Kyi again refused passage out of the country. She opted instead to continue at 54 University Avenue, now with her “house arrest” self-imposed. Four months later, she told Clements: “Nothing has changed since my release....Let the world know that we are still prisoners within our own country.” For a time, there did seem to be a slackening of the repression. Among the first things Suu Kyi did on her “release” was to walk to the front gate and greet some of the people who had gathered there. This walk to the gate became a regular ritual, and thousands of supporters gathered each weekend to hear Suu Kyi speak, to voice their concerns, and to take strength from their growing numbers, all under the cameras of SLORC agents. (One of these sessions at the gate is the subject of the video that will be shown at the Unitarian Church on November 7.)
The democracy meetings ended earlier this year when SLORC had the whole city block barricaded and reinstated a permanent guard. It appeared the pendulum was going to swing all the way back again, but Hla-Tint says the announcement of U.S. sanctions had its effect. Although the outlook in the areas of freedom of the press and human rights is “very gloomy”, “the military seems a bit more flexible” since the U.S. and Canadian actions, Hla-Tint says. About 700 members of the NLD were allowed into the compound on University Avenue for the party’s ninth-anniversary congress in September, and this month SLORC gave permission for the Philippines’ foreign minister to visit Suu Kyi, although a request by Philippine president Fidel Ramos for a visit was denied.
“But up to now, we don’t really see the real sincerity of the military to enter into a dialogue,” adds Hla-Tint. “Without talking to each other, how can we know what they want and what their concerns are? We don’t see any concrete schedule and plan for a dialogue, yet.” International sanctions, whether combined or unilateral, provide the best hope, he says. He dismisses the idea that sanctions will add to the misery of the common people. “Most of the international investment and international assistance has been for the benefit of the military and their interests.”
“It’s very simple. You must not forget that the people of Burma want democracy,” starts off Suu Kyi’s last statement in The Voice of Hope. “Whatever the authorities may say, it is a fact that the people want democracy and they do not want an authoritarian regime that deprives them of their basic human rights. The world should do everything possible to bring about the kind of political system that the majority of the people of Burma want and for which so many people have sacrificed themselves.
“Burma should be helped at a time when help is needed. And one day we hope to be ourselves in a position to help others in need.”
Clements says the essence of Suu Kyi’s message in The Voice of Hope is “politics of the heart versus Stone Age thinking from the mind. It’s one of the most black-and-white examples. Like Martin Luther King, she is not seeking to destroy her adversaries, but seeking reconciliation, understanding, and friendship. Herein lies her strength.”
Another of her strengths is her sense of humour, which she says has been crucial to her and her followers in holding on to the patience and determination they have shown over nine years of trial and occasional horror. There is a surprising amount of laughter in The Voice of Hope, laughter both joyous and satirical. When Clements asks about reports that SLORC has outlawed the use of her name in works of fiction, she replies: “It’s forbidden to even use the name ”˜Suu’, I hear. But I suppose that if that name were given to a really nasty character the censors might allow it to pass”¦”
Laughter is hard to come by in Burma. Recent floods were the worst in 36 years, says Hla-Tint, who blames aggressive harvesting of the rain forest after SLORC sell-offs to foreign interests: “According to conservative estimates from Rangoon, 400,000 acres of paddy fields were destroyed.” Hundreds of thousands are homeless, and thousands may be dying of hunger and disease, joining the tens of thousands dead from hunger, disease, overwork, murder, poor medical treatment, and torture since SLORC came to power.
The only action the military takes is to issue statements saying the problem is exaggerated and they have the situation under control. Life goes on. The discos in Rangoon play “Oh Mickey You’re So Fine” for elderly businessmen and their young dates. Not far away, 54 University Avenue is crumbling, says Clements, from neglect of the maintenance needed in a climate that alternates between baking heat and driving monsoons. Inside, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is waiting for the world to notice.