Wednesday, December 2, 2015


When one thinks about the heroes of democracy; people who have sacrificed their lives to see democracy flourish in their respective countries, one might come up with only a few names. In thinking of the true heroes of democracy, your thought goes to those who have risked everything, had no thought for personal gain, being victims of violence and intimidation, lost friends and loved ones in the struggle, and lived to fight another day and eventually lead their nations out of the darkness and into the light. When one reflects on all these, in addition to other great individuals, one also looks fondly on Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.
At first glance, the image of the 70year old Suu Kyi does not reveal her innate strength and toughness. Slim, pleasant-looking, demure; Aung San Suu Kyi comes across as a friendly grand-mother, than an astute, dogged politician. It is only when one is informed of her fiery actions and harrowing experiences navigating the murky waters of Burmese politics, that one now begins to understand the ferocity of this political character; and even then, there is still much more than meets the eyes! I often ask myself: “why would certain people risk everything- including their own lives- for their country and people?” “How do great political leaders keep hope alive even when there does not seem to be any prospect for victory?” I think the answer is in “vision”. Aung San Suu Kyi always had a vision for Myanmar; and it was a vision that would take her down a very rough path and make her a symbol of polarization as well as the greatest affection, for most of her life.
If we categorize leaders into two groups: those who are born as such, and then those who become leaders by their own peculiar situations; we would have a hard time placing her solely in any of the two categories. This is because she fits perfectly in both. Her father was a General who founded the Burmese Army, and led the country’s independence. He was assassinated when Suu Kyi was only two years old. Her mother was at one time, Burmese Ambassador to India. At birth, Suu Kyi had the “blood of leadership and greatness” flowing in her veins. But rather than her parent’s story, it is her own unique political story that has earned her a much deserved place in the history books.
After a stint living abroad during which time she married her British husband and became a mother to 2 boys, Ms. Suu Kyi returned to her homeland in 1988 to cater to her ailing mother. As fate would have it, it turned out that she had arrived the country at a time of great political upheaval. Myanmar was in a crisis; and naturally, she stepped into the fray. Her actions soon incurred the wrath of the military; and in 1989, she would be placed under house arrest. As it turned out, she would eventually spend most of the time between 1989 and 2010 in one form of detention or the other. Under such conditions, her whole life was censored. She was separated from her sons and husband, and was not even by her husband’s side when he died in 1999 from prostate cancer. Actually, the military leaders in Myanmar refused to grant his visa request to see her upon his diagnosis; and even though they told her she could leave, she refused to do so for fear that she wouldn’t be let back into the country. This particular action of not leaving Myanmar at that delicate time may be seen by some as “an act of selfishness” on her part; but I think that those who reach that conclusion do not have an understanding of the wider picture...of the particularly sensitive issues that were at stake for Suu Kyi. I think that when your father is assassinated after leading the struggle for independence and when you become a victim of military brutality in your later years all because you led a push for democratic freedom in your civil-war ravaged country, your character becomes “steeled”; such that having faced the worst travails and received inhumane treatment, you become extremely determined to see your struggle to the desired end. And to Suu Kyi, if she was unable to get back into the country, then all her work would have been in vain. I think those were the stakes for Suu Kyi. Caged behind prison bars or held within walls in house arrest, her character toughened. She learned the hard way to shield her personal pain from the military, so it wouldn’t be used against her. In 1991, her sons accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf, as she was held in detention. In 1996, during a brief period of release, her convoy was lynched by an irate mob that had been paid by the military to carry out the act. Thankfully, she survived. As the country went through the harshest years of authoritarian rule, all Suu Kyi could offer from detention to her loyal supporters- who kept on increasing in numbers- was the comfort of her survival. As long as she was still alive…as long as she did not die, then there was hope. She lived. And she won. Eventually.
As Myanmar’s citizen’s trooped to the polls on November 8th 2015, in what has since been called its fairest elections in 25years, one expected Suu Kyi’s NLD party to win. But what one might not have dared to fathom- lest one border on the verge of wishful thinking- was that they would win by a landslide! The military had inserted a clause into the constitution, giving them 25% of seats in parliament; which meant that the NLD would have to win by landslide majority votes, to form a new government. They did. Suu Kyi’s beloved country people made it so. And even though under the constitution, she cannot become President due to another clause inserted (again, by the military) which makes it illegal for citizens whose children are foreign nationals to become President- Suu Kyi’s sons are British citizens- there is no doubt that Madam Aung San Suu Kyi as leader of her party, gets to call the shots! She may not be President, but she sits in parliament and orchestrates the direction of Myanmar’s foreseeable future. The buck stops with her.
It has not been an easy road for Myanmar or for Suu Kyi; and the road ahead is not guaranteed to be any easier. Even though giant strides have been made, the country is still in need of major democratic reforms. Minority Rohingya Muslims have been subjected to the worst forms of cruelty by the greater populace, and other minority groups continue to struggle to have their voices heard. These would have to be addressed. With pressure from the international community, the military gave up power...but not completely. In addition to giving themselves 25% parliamentary seats, they also get to nominate ministers for 3 key positions: defense, interior, and border security. Also, they retain veto power over any future constitutional reform. Recognizing this delicate situation, Suu Kyi called for a meeting between the NLD, USDP, and the military; to discuss reconciliation, power-sharing, and Myanmar’s larger future. Hopefully, it would produce positive results; especially seeing as she now wields greater power and influence in the country.
Like Nelson Mandela’s, the Aung San Suu Kyi story is a lesson in perseverance. It highlights the finest traits of doggedness, great internal strength and the utmost tenacity, in a single individual. But it is also blended with a lot of sadness, personal travails, and great loss. Suu Kyi has given her beloved country, everything. And she survived. And her survival makes Myanmar’s future, a great deal brighter.

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