The people of the country of Burma, otherwise known as the Union of Myanmar, have been subjected to horrific oppression at the hands of a military junta under the leadership of Than Shwe . The person who has become synonymous with the struggle for peace and social justice in Burma is Aung San Suu Kyi.
Aung San Suu Kyi was born in 1945; she was the daughter of Aung San, Burma’s national hero. Her father was assassinated in 1947 just prior to the time Burma achieved national independence. Kyi was educated in Rangoon, New Delhi, Oxford University and the University of London and worked for the United Nations. Kyi married Dr. Michael Aris from the United Kingdom and raised her family in England. Her husband died in 1999.
Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 to tend to her dying mother. Her return coincided with the outbreak of a spontaneous revolt against twenty-six years of political repression and precipitous economic decline. This turn of events dramatically changed the course of her life. The fact that her father was regarded as a national hero and martyr for the cause of Burmese independence and freedom put her in a position that would ultimately lead her to become leader of the movement. She achieved electoral victory in 1990 to become Burma’s national leader. This victory was short-lived due to the intervention of the junta. Despite the fact that she has faced periodic house arrest, Kyi remains undaunted in her fight to help gain political freedom for her people.
Burma is, in fact, the largest country in Southeast Asia and is bounded by China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and India. It is a country with a long and remarkable history. A cursory examination of its recent past is offered below.
Burma has a history that dates back over two thousand years. We will examine the colonial and post-colonial period. The British were involved in three Anglo-Burmese Wars that lasted sixty years. As a result of these conflicts, the British consolidated their colonization of Burma in 1886, and immediately added the conquered territory to India. Using their well-tested colonial policy of divide and conquer, the British favored some groups including the Karen – an ethnic people that comprise 7% of the Burmese population and who live in the South and Southeast part of the country - for key military and administrative positions.
Protests against foreign domination were launched by the Buddhist Monks and intelligentsia beginning in 1920 and by 1935 the student union at Rangoon University was involved in a movement for national independence. Among the students, Aung San, Kyi’s father, who was pursuing a law degree, became its predominant leader.
In 1941 at the beginning of World War II, Aung San and 29 of his comrades formed what was referred to as the “Thirty Comrades.” They understood that the British colonial presence was considerably weakened by the Second World War and took the opportunity to travel to Japan for military training. The Japanese promised an independent Burma if they prevailed over the British. Over time, this group recognized that the Japanese were disingenuous. As a result of this realization, they switched allegiance and pledged support to the British. Aung San successfully negotiated an agreement with the British to grant Burmese independence if the British prevailed over the Japanese. As a consequence, Burma was afforded total independence from the British in January 1947.
Aung San was able to convince the diverse and often opposing ethnic groups throughout the country to reach agreement; this was no small achievement. On July 1947, in the midst of the creation of the new constitution, Aung San was assassinated along with members of the newly formed Cabinet by an opposition group. As a consequence, U Nu was chosen to fill the leadership vacancy. Finally, Burma achieved complete independence on January 4, 1948. In just ten short years, U Nu was summarily removed from office and was replaced by a supposed caretaker government under the leadership of General Ne Win. Ne Win subsequently staged a coup and became Burma’s military dictator and formed the Revolutionary Council. Using his extraordinary authority and power, he brutally repressed the communist ethnic-minority opposition. For the next three decades, the Burmese government under Ne Win’s direction, pursued a disastrous course that ultimately left the country in social and economic ruin.
In July, 1988, Ne Win announced that he was prepared to step down. Recognizing the possibility of a profound change in direction, demonstrations were organized throughout the country during what has been called, “Democracy Summer.” This was short-lived, for on August 8, 1988, government troops brutally retaliated over four days killing some 10,000 demonstrators.
In response, thousands of political opponents moved to the border regions that were under ethnic control and formed alliances with sympathetic groups. These groups included the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the All Burma Student Democratic Front, the Democratic Alliance of Burma and the National Democratic Front (NDF). These groups formed an umbrella organization called the National Council of the Union of Burma.
Coincidentally, these event were unfolding while Kyi was in Burma. As daughter of the beloved national hero, she was persuaded to use her influence to bring change to her troubled country. As a result, Kyi along with sympathetic colleagues formed the National League for Democracy (NLD). Sensing that this movement would rapidly gain popular support, Ne Win took back full control of the country by staging a successful coup.
On September 18, 1988, the control of the country was placed effectively in the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) consisting of 19 members. In July 1989, Kyi was placed under house arrest and kept there for six years. The SLORC realized that the country’s image abroad was seriously impacting foreign investment and announced multi-party elections to be held on May 27, 1990. Despite severe political repression, the NLD and Kyi were victorious gaining 82% of the vote. In response, the SLORC dismissed the results and retained their grip on the country. Kyi was released from prison in May of 2002. She continues to be in the forefront of the struggle for peace and social justice.
The conditions in the country remain onerous with continued civil war especially in the border regions, economic stagnation, millions of refugees and extensive evidence of human rights abuses.
In regards to the upcoming elections in November 2010, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) - backed by the military junta and formed from a junta-backed mass organization called the Union Solidarity Association founded in 1993 and drawing its support from the country’s vast civil service - claims that it will, "practice the multiparty democracy system, market-oriented economic system and independent and active foreign policies." According to Htay Oo, agriculture minister and the party's secretary general, his party will guarantee people's "rights and liabilities ... in line with the constitution." It is interesting to note that Prime Minister Thein Sein and twenty-six of his cabinet resigned their military posts In April of 2010 to make them eligible to take part in politics.
The general elections to be held on Nov. 7 are the first in 20 years. However, since Kyi was not allowed to assume power following her decisive electoral victory in 1990, many of her countrymen have decided to boycott this year's elections, charging that the process is unfair and undemocratic.
Kyi's now disbanded National League for Democracy party was “legally” dissolved on account of its alleged failure to reregister to run in the election. Kyi has been locked away for 15 of the past 21 years. Her latest term of 18 months' house arrest is due to expire on Nov. 13, just days after the scheduled polls.
Aung San Suu Kyi comes from a strong Buddhist spiritual tradition and was profoundly influenced by her father’s example and his politically-motivated death. Despite her continued suffering, she remains profoundly dedicated to helping liberate her country and its people. As an international tribute to her struggle, she was awarded the nobel Peace Prize in 1991. The acceptance speech was delivered by her son, Aris on December 10, 1991 for she was under house arrest at the time. The following is an excerpt from that speech.
“ Firstly, I know that she would begin by saying that she accepts the Nobel Prize for Peace not in her own name but in the name of all the people of Burma. She would say that this prize belongs not to her but to all those men, women and children who, even as I speak, continue to sacrifice their wellbeing, their freedom and their lives in pursuit of a democratic Burma. Theirs is the prize and theirs will be the eventual victory in Burma's long struggle for peace, freedom and democracy.
Speaking as her son, however, I would add that I personally believe that by her own dedication and personal sacrifice she has come to be a worthy symbol through whom the plight of all the people of Burma may be recognised. And no one must underestimate that plight. The plight of those in the countryside and towns, living in poverty and destitution, those in prison, battered and tortured; the plight of the young people, the hope of Burma, dying of malaria in the jungles to which they have fled; that of the Buddhist monks, beaten and dishonoured. Nor should we forget the many senior and highly respected leaders besides my mother who are all incarcerated. It is on their behalf that I thank you, from my heart, for this supreme honour. The Burmese people can today hold their heads a little higher in the knowledge that in this far distant land their suffering has been heard and heeded.
We must also remember that the lonely struggle taking place in a heavily guarded compound in Rangoon is part of the much larger struggle, worldwide, for the emancipation of the human spirit from political tyranny and psychological subjection. The Prize, I feel sure, is also intended to honour all those engaged in this struggle wherever they may be. It is not without reason that today's events in Oslo fall on the International Human Rights Day, celebrated throughout the world.”