Aung San Suu Kyi and a brief history of the Burmese democracy movement

            Readers of my blog know that travel and cats are my two passions.  Friends, clients, and readers have been asking me where I'm going next.  A few months ago, I decided that Burma (now called Myanmar, although I'm going to keep calling it Burma) was my next destination, and I've been preparing for it ever since, reading travel guides, history books, Burma-related blogs, and putting together an interesting itinerary (that of course includes cats.)  

Burma has been in the news lately, because of their upcoming election.  I shouldn't say "upcoming", because as I write this, the elections have just wrapped up, and results are trickling in.  We'll know more in a few days.

You really can’t talk about Burma without talking about the world’s most famous former prisoner of conscience, Aung San Suu Kyi.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you have to have heard about this remarkable woman.  Aung San Suu Kyi has served as the human face of the Burmese freedom struggle.  She is to Burma what Nelson Mandela was to South Africa. Because many Americans only have a vague awareness of what's going on in Burma and who Aung San Suu Kyi is, I thought I'd devote this column to (hopefully) Burma's next leader.         

            Undoubtedly, much of Aung San Suu Kyi’s standing comes from her status as the daughter of Aung San, the revered father of modern Myanmar.  Despite the illustrious parentage, her early life gave no hint of path she would later follow.  Born in Yangon in 1945, she was just two years old when her father was assassinated. She spend many of her younger years abroad, first in Delhi where her mother, Khin Kyi, served as Burmese ambassador to India and Nepal, before studying at Oxford University, where she met her future husband, Dr. Michael Aris, the late distinguished Asian scholar.  She later worked for the UN in New York before marrying Aris in 1971.  She and Aris spend their first year of their marriage in Bhutan, where Aris tutored the royal family.  They then returned to England, living in Oxford, where Aris became a university lecturer.  Aung San Suu Kyi continued her studies at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.  She also raised two sons. 

            So how did the bookish and retiring wife of an Oxford lecturer rise to such global prominence? 
It’s a pretty remarkable story.  In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Yangon to care for her sick mother who had been admitted to the Rangoon General Hospital.  Within weeks of her return, she suddenly found herself caught up in the greatest popular uprising in modern Burmese history.  Popular discontent at military rule erupted in what is known as the 8888 Uprising, so named because the key events occurred on August 8th, 1988.  The initial spark for the uprising occurred in March 1988, when a student was shot dead by police following a trivial altercation in Yangon.  Protests quickly spread across the city’s universities , and more students were killed during a protest at Inya Lake.  By June, demonstrations had spread across the entire nation.  It was at Rangoon General Hospital where a particular vicious massacre occurred on August 10th, 1988.  Government soldiers fired into the hospital, killing injured patients who were assumed to have taken part in anti-government protests, along with doctors and nurses.  Two weeks later, Aung San Suu Kyi made her first public speech on the hospital grounds.  Swept along in the sudden political upheaval, she decided to devote herself to the fight for democracy, modeling herself on Mahatma Gandhi as well as her own Buddhist faith, and using non-violent resistance, dialogue, diplomacy, and reconciliation.  Her first official public speech, at the Shwedagon pagoda, was attended by thousands of Burmese (some say half a million) whose hopes and dreams were now stoked by the very daughter of country’s famed national hero, Aung San.  She became, almost overnight, the defining symbol of the nation’s struggle for democracy.  Things were looking promising.  

            And then, on September 18, 1988, the military suddenly and aggressively struck back, imposing martial law and breaking up protests with shocking brutality, all in the name of the newly established State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Once again, the military assumed total control of the country.   Soldiers roamed through cities nationwide, shooting randomly at protesters.  Over 1500 protestors were murdered in the first week of SLORC rule alone.  Aung San Suu Kyi appealed for international help, but in a few days, all protests were crushed.  The prospects for a democratic Burma, which looked tantalizingly good for one exciting month in August 1988, were now as remote as ever. 

            Undeterred by SLORC, Aung San Suu Kyi established the National League for Democracy (NLD) that same month.  SLORC offered to hold elections, but Aung San Suu Kyi rejected their offer on the grounds that any election held would not be free and fair as long as the generals were in power.  SLORC went ahead and announced that the first elections in the country since 1960 would be held anyway.  These were designed to elect a quasi-parliamentary body which would draft a new constitution and provide some semblance of democracy.  The generals placed all major opposition leaders under arrest (including Aung San Suu Kyi; see below), and took control of the media of course.  Imagine their surprise then, when the elections of May 1990 provided a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, winning 392 of 492 seats available, trouncing the National Unity Party (the party sponsored by SLORC).  Not surprisingly, SLORC refused to recognize the election results. 

            Aung San Suu Kyi’s new political career, however, was abruptly halted in July 1989, however, when she was put under house arrest.   Her confinement would last two decades, however, her international profile could not be contained by the military.  In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.  Aung San Suu Kyi is a beloved figure in Burma, but she is not completely without criticism.  Some people have questioned the usefulness of her Gandhi-like passive resistance in the face of such brutal military rule.  To protest the government, the NLD urged a tourism boycott, and supported Western sanctions which, some have argued, only served to plunge the country further into poverty and hardship.  The government repeatedly tries to caricature Aung San Suu Kyi as a “Western poster girl” and “foreigner”, due to her years abroad and her British family.

            In 2007, the military junta decided to remove fuel subsidies, and gasoline prices rose by two thirds overnight.  Anti-government protests hadn’t occurred for more than a decade, but simmering discontent with military rule now boiled over.  The first protests were held by monks in the town of Pakokku, and the dissent quickly spread across the country.  By September, thousands of monks and other demonstrators were marching daily through Yangon and Mandalay.  This was known as the “Saffron Revolution”, alluding to the saffron color of monks’ robes.   In some ways, this was déjà vu  - a re-run of the protests that occurred in 1988, and just as in 1988, the military responded with vicious brutality.  In late September, soldiers attacked and tear-gassed the protestors. Thousands were beaten, many were shot, and hundreds were arrested and sentenced to many years of hard labor.  The international community was outraged and sanctions and trade restrictions were imposed.  Rumors of dissention within the ranks of the military generals, and rumors that many soldiers and officers had refused orders to take violent action against the demonstrators, particularly monks (who tend to be revered in Buddhist society) suggested that the tide might finally be turning against the regime.  The regime announced that elections would be held in 2010.

            The elections announced by the military in 2008 were indeed held as promised in 2010.  The NLD boycotted them, since many of its most prominent members were prevented from running.  This included Aung San Suu Kyi herself. Given the non-participation of the NLD, plus widespread allegations of electoral intimidation and other irregularities, it came as no surprise that the government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) posted a landslide victory.

            A few days after the bogus election, on November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was finally freed from house arrest.  She immediately threw herself right back into her political work, announcing her intention of running for president in the elections of 2015.  The military, trying to again to play on her expatriate past, inserted a clause in the constitution barring anyone with a foreign spouse or children from serving as president.  This legislation was specifically enacted to deny her the opportunity of being president, because they know she would doubtless obtain that position if things were done fairly.  It’s unbelievably ludicrous and infuriating. 

            Despite the military background of the USDP, the new government shockingly set about initiating a series of major reforms. Anti-corruption legislation was passed, hundreds of political prisoners were released, and amazingly, press censorship eased greatly.  Images of Aung San Suu Kyi, banned just a few years previously, were suddenly able to be seen everywhere, from newspapers to T-shirts.  Signs of economic reform were also starting to show.  Currency exchange rates were normalized, leading to a virtual disappearance of the formerly ubiquitous black market, and foreign companies were allowed to do business in Myanmar for the first time in 50 years.   By-elections (elections to fill seats that had become vacant between elections) were held in 2012, and the NLD was allowed to participate.  NLD candidates won 43 of the 44 seats. Aung San Suu Kyi herself won the seat of Kawhmu township in Yangon.  She now travels freely around the country.

I started this post on October 25. The election was due to take place in fourteen days, on November 8. I'm finishing this post today, November 9.   There were a total of 6065 candidates in the election, almost double the 3069 candidates in the 2010 elections.   It was the first nationwide poll in 25 years to be openly contested by all political parties.  President Thein Sein’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), competed with Aung San Suu Kyi’s widely popular National League for Democracy for the majority vote.  Dozens of parties from ethnic minority states competed for a share of the votes in their local areas.  After half a century of despotic rule, is Myanmar headed toward actual democracy?  Are the reforms representative of genuine change, or are they simply window-dressing?  We'll know very soon.  The votes are in, and are being counted.  The world anxiously awaits.  As reports trickle in, things are looking good.  

 I travel to Burma on November 20th.  Final results of the election will be released on November 22.  The State Department recommends not traveling to Burma during this time.  I didn’t know that when I booked my flight.  I’m glad, in a way.  There’s something thrilling about being in a country as history unfolds.   I’ve been following several Burma blogs and keeping up with the election as it unfolds.  Aung San Suu Kyi is already accusing some of her opponents of being dishonest in the campaigning.  Crunch polls show that her party, the NLD, is expected to post major victories, if the vote is free and fair.  At a recent rally in eastern Shan State, a region long wracked by ethnic insurgencies against the government, Suu Kyi said that a vote for her party would free Myanmar from its isolated past.  “The light of real democracy would enable Myanmar to escape living under the black shadow of dictatorship”, she told a crowd of supporters.  We must keep in mind, though, that even if her party wins, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred by the constitution from becoming president.  You would think that would stop her, no?  “If the NLD wins the elections and we form a government, I’m going to be the leader of that government whether or not I’m the president,” she told the India Today television channel. “The leader of the NLD government will have to be me because I am the leader of my party,” she said.

Under Burma’s constitution, a quarter of the legislative seats are reserved for the military, insuring them a de facto parliamentary veto.  Her party needs an overwhelming victory in order to hold sway over parliament.  Suu Kyi, however, is not deterred by the rule guaranteeing 25% of the seats for the military.  She has vowed one day to overturn the rule.  “This country will be developed only when the system is changed”, she told a crowd of supporters.  “To change the system, we need to change the government.”   I can’t wait to see what happens next. I may actually be there in the country when it all happens.