Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Suu Kyi says NLD ‘stronger now’; discusses suffering and fear

Wednesday, 29 June 2011 19:16 Mizzima News

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – Aung San Suu Kyi envies the people of Tunisia and Egypt their relatively bloodless transition from ‘dictatorship to democracy’ and admits that real democracy for Burma is slow in coming.

Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech. Photo: Mizzima
In an address and response to questions as part of the BBC 2011 Reith Lecture broadcast on Tuesday, the pro-democracy campaigner and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) talked about what securing freedom means for her and her party in Burma.

The address was pre-recorded in Burma. A second address will be broadcast on Tuesday next week.

At a time when the National League for Democracy (NLD) is being labeled an ‘illegal party’ by the Burmese authorities and coming under pressure, Suu Kyi talked of the parallels and differences between her party’s freedom struggle and the Arab Spring in the Middle East that has seen dictatorships crumble under the pressure of people power.

Elections were held in November 2010 in Burma under what the NLD claim was an unacceptable Constitution and the resulting government, they claim, is controlled by the Burmese military.

‘The universal aspirations to be free have been brought home to us by the developments in the Middle East’, said Suu Kyi in her prepared address. ‘The Burmese are as excited by these events as peoples elsewhere. Our interest is particularly keen as there are notable similarities between the 10 December revolution in Tunisia and our own 1988 uprising. Both started with what at that time seemed like small unimportant events.

‘A fruit seller in a Tunisian town unknown to the world at large gave an unforgettable demonstration of the importance of human rights. One humble man showed his right was more precious than life itself. This sparked off a whole revolution. In Burma a quarrel in a Rangoon teashop between university students and local men was handled by the police in a way that the students considered unjust. This led to demonstrations that resulted in the death of a student. This was the spark that fired nationwide demonstrations against the dictatorship of the Burmese socialist party’.

Suu Kyi said she envied the people of Tunisia and Egypt. ‘We do wish for a quick and peaceful transition. More than envy is a sense of solidarity and a renewed cause which is a cause of all women and men who value freedom and dignity’.

She spoke of her admiration for young people struggling for democracy, including young Burmese rap singers, a number of whom were imprisoned following the 2007 Saffron Revolution protests.

‘The Burmese authorities, like the Tunisian government, are not fond of intense young people. They see them as a threat to the kind of order they intend to impose on our country. For those who believe in freedom, young rappers present a freedom unbound by prejudice and arbitrary rules and regulations, by oppression and injustice'.

She said the similarities between Tunisia and Burma are the similarities that bind people all over the world who long for freedom. But ‘the Tunisian army did not fire on their people; the Burmese army did’.

The communications revolution played a powerful part in the Arab revolts in the Middle East, she said. ‘This not only enabled them to better organize and coordinate their movement, it kept the attention of the whole world firmly focused on them. Not just every single death but every single wounded became known to the world within minutes. In Libya, Syria and Yemen now, the revolutionaries keep the world informed of the atrocities of those in power. The picture of a 13-year-old boy tortured to death in Syria aroused such anger and indignation that world leaders had to raise their voices in condemnation’.

Suu Kyi said there were a number of reasons why the Arab Spring has not drifted over Burma. She said there was a difference in terms of the communications revolution, geopolitical considerations, the shooting of protestors and the lack of images on TV and the Internet to rouse the world.

‘I have said I adhere to nonviolence for practical reasons because I think it is best for the country and even Gandhi-ji, who is supposed to be the leader of the nonviolent movement, said between cowardice and violence, he would choose violence any time’, she said.

Living in a state of ‘unfreedom’ and ‘living without’ as a dissident has clearly been a test for the 1991 Nobel laureate, but she said she gets inspiration from a number of places. In the lecture, she recalled being inspired reading a book at the age of 13 called ‘Seven Years Solitary’ by a Hungarian dissident, Edith Bone. And she is inspired by the sacrifices of her fellow NLD members, young and old, who struggle in difficult circumstances often with no pay for the cause. The NLD headquarters is hardly plush and hi-tech.

People dub the NLD a ‘cowshed’, but as she points out, ‘We do not take offence. Didn’t one of the world’s most influential movements begin in a cowshed?’

She recalled the horror of being attacked by unknown assailants in May 2003 in her motorcade in Depayin.

Part of a violent mob that attacked a Suu Kyi motorcade in
Depayin in 2003. Photo: Mizzima
Nothing was heard of the fate of the attackers, she said, but, ‘We the victims were placed under arrest.  I was taken to the notorious Insein jail and kept alone, and have to admit, kept rather well, in a small building kept apart from the quarters of other prisoners.

'One morning while going though my daily set of physical exercises, keeping fit as possible was the first duty of a political prisoner, I found myself thinking, “this is not me”. I would not have been capable of carrying on calmly like this, I would have been curled up weakly in my bed, worrying my head about wondering about the fate of those who had been in Depayin with me. How many of them had been severely beaten up? How many of them had been dragged away I did not know where? How many of them had died and what was happening to the rest of the NLD? I would have been laid low by anxiety and uncertainty. This was not me working out as conscientiously as any keep-fit fanatic. This is not me, this is somebody else that suffers. I could never face that'.

She stressed the strong bond of ‘those of us who only had our inner resources to fall back on when we were most in need of strength and endurance’.

Passion is needed to be a dissident, said Suu Kyi. What is passion? she asked. Liberty, which translates as suffering, and she contends, in a political context, it is a religious one; a deliberate decision to grasp the cup.

‘We would rather let it pass. It is not a decision made lightly. We do not enjoy suffering, we are not masochists. It is because of the high value we put on the object of our passion’, she said.

As she noted, Buddhism teaches that the ultimate liberation is the liberation from all desire. ‘It could be argued the Buddha is animical to the desire of movements for human rights and political reform. However, when the Buddhist monks went on a muuta, loving kindness, march in 2007 they were protesting against the sudden steep rise in the price of fuel that had led to a devastating rise in food prices. They were using their spiritual authority to move for the basic right of the people to buy food. Spiritual freedom does not need to be an indifference to the practical rights and freedoms that are generally seen as necessary’, she said.

Suu Kyi pointed to a basic human right that she values highly—freedom from fear. ‘Since the very beginning of the democracy movement we have had to contend with the debilitating sense of fear that permeates a whole society. Visitors to Burma are quick to remark that the Burmese are warm and hospitable. I would also add, sadly, that the Burmese are afraid to discuss political issues.

‘Fear is the first adversary we have to get past when we set out to battle for freedom and often it is the one that remains until the very end. But freedom from fear does not have to be complete; it only has to be sufficient to enable us to carry on. To carry on in spite of fear requires tremendous courage’.

During a question time, someone asked if she was worried, given the fate of her father, Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947, that she might lose her life fighting for democracy in Burma. ‘We all come to terms with such a possibility early on. It is always a possibility but you might also get knocked down by a bus on the high street’, she quipped.

Suu Kyi said that one of the reasons they go on is, ‘We don’t know how to stop, we don’t know how to turn our backs on our beliefs, we don’t know how to abandon our comrades, we don’t know how to do these things, so we go on’.

For a link to the BBC Reith Lecture 2011, go to

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