Aung San Suu Kyii is a democracy icon in the non-violent mould of Mahatma Gandhi.
Nyo Ohn Myint still remembers the moment, 20 years ago, when the legend of Aung San Suu Kyi began. He was there when she gave a stirring speech and became the symbol of hope for a country under the oppressive grip of military rule since 1962.
The then history teacher at Rangoon University was in a convoy of five vehicles that had taken Suu Kyi, on the morning of Aug 26, 1988, from her colonial-era home in the Burmese city to a public meeting in front of the great, gold-topped Shwedagon pagoda.
It was slow going, Nyo Ohn Myint, then 25, recalls. They had taken an hour to cover the three-mile distance. And that first major public appearance for Suu Kyi gained significance in the wake of the brutal crackdown over two weeks before when Burmese troops had shot to death some 3,000 unarmed people protesting against the military dictatorship. That August 8 protest drew hundreds of thousands of people, the largest crowds since anti-government demonstrations had begun earlier that year.
The crowds had swelled to nearly 500,000 to hear Suu Kyi, then 43, who was only known as the daughter of Burma’s independence hero, general Aung San, and an occasional visitor to the country from Oxford where she was living with her British academic husband and raising a family. Nyo Ohn Myint stood on a side stage and watched Suu Kyi establish her political credentials in Burmese.
|"It is also true of the Burmese democracy movement: it is likely to lose its momentum if she is not in the scene."|
That day she emerged “as the person who could lead our country,”’ the former confidant of Suu Kyi said during a telephone interview from the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. “She impressed the crowds and was totally committed to take on the political challenge of dealing with the military regime.”
Other student activists who were in the vanguard of the 1988 anti-government protests feel likewise about Suu Kyi’s debut on Burma’s political landscape. “She gave people hope with her speech,” says Myint Myint San, then a 22-year-old final year botany student at Rangoon University. “She did a tremendous job to help people understand what democracy means. And she dared to speak to the army and confront (then dictator) general Ne Win.”
In the days that followed, the tapes of her speech were in high demand. “People kept playing it again and again,” Myint Myint San told IPS. “People began to talk of Burma getting its second independence after we got our first when the British (colonisers) left (in 1948).”
It was a dramatic turn of events for a woman who had come home in March 1988 to care of her sick mother and with no thought of political activism on her mind. “When I returned home to Burma in 1988 to nurse my sick mother, I was planning on starting a chain of libraries in my father’s name. A life of politics held no attraction to me,” she said in a 1995 interview with Vanity Fair. “But the people of my country were demanding for democracy, and as my father’s daughter, I felt I had a duty to get involved.”
Yet, two decades later, the hope for a new Burmese independence — free of military oppression — appears remote. The junta remains firmly in control, with a tighter grip on the political landscape than in 1988. And Suu Kyi’s democratic mission has been forced to the margins.
But that has not diminished Suu Kyi’s stature as a democracy icon in the non-violent mould of Mahatma Gandhi. It has come at great personal sacrifice, though, given the over 13 of the past 19 years she has spent under house arrest, and the harsh limits the junta placed on her meetings with supporters and family members.
She was vindicated in 1990 when a new party she led, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won with a huge majority at a parliamentary election that the junta refused to recognise. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, the first among 40-odd international awards she has won. And in the years since, international attempts to nudge Burma towards political reform have had to turn to the charismatic Suu Kyi — detained or free— to ensure credibility and public support.
“She has become the rallying point for the democracy movement in Burma. She has contributed tremendously to the growth of democratic culture in the past 20 years,” says Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst living in exile in Thailand. “Her struggle has put Burma’s political problems and its suffering on the world map.”
Take her out of the picture and the NLD will be nothing, he explains in an interview. “It is also true of the Burmese democracy movement: it is likely to lose its momentum if she is not in the scene.”
Her two decades in Rangoon have also helped build bridges between the majority Burmese community and the Southeast Asian country’s many ethnic communities, 17 of which had rebel movements fighting separatist campaigns against the Burmese troops. Leaders of these ethnic communities have confirmed that reconciliation between the majority Burmese and non-Burmese minorities is possible through dialogue with Suu Kyi.
They relate to her views of a democratic Burma that she has articulated over the years in her speeches and writings. “When we ask for democracy, all we are asking is that our people should be allowed to live in tranquility, under the rule of law, protected by institutions which will guarantee our rights, the rights that will enable us to maintain our human dignity, to heal the long festering wounds and to allow love and courage to flourish,” she is once reported to have said. “Is that such a very unreasonable demand?” (By MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR In Bangkok/ IPS Asia-Pacific/ AsiaNews)