OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10
By KYAW ZWA MOE
The Irrawaddy News
Recent events have raised concerns about Aung San Suu Kyi’s health—and questions about how the pro-democracy movement would cope without her
LET’S imagine a situation: Burma without Aung San Suu Kyi. Undoubtedly, the ruling generals would see this as a dream come true. But for the majority of Burmese, it would come as a great disappointment to lose the leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement.
Aung San Suu Kyi at her Inya Lake home in 1996 - (Photo: Nic Dunlop/Panos)
Suu Kyi may be a prisoner, but she still has immense power. She strikes fear into the hearts of heavily armed men, while giving moral strength to the powerless. She is the hope of the people of Burma, who have struggled to survive under the boot of their military rulers for the past 46 years.
Her recent refusal to receive food deliveries raised serious concerns about her health and worries about the country’s future without her.
According to her lawyer and her doctor—the only two people who were able to meet her during her month-long ordeal, which began in mid-August—Suu Kyi’s protest against her continued unlawful detention had left her thin and malnourished.
It was the first time in two decades that Suu Kyi had subjected herself to a hunger strike. Soon after beginning her first period of house arrest in 1989, she refused food and demanded to be placed in prison alongside her colleagues. After several weeks, she won guarantees that her fellow pro-democracy activists would not be tortured, and ended her protest. Her weight had dropped from 48 kg (106 lbs) to just 40 kg (90 lbs), and she suffered hair loss, impaired vision and a weakened immune system.
At the time, Suu Kyi was still in her early forties. Now she is in her sixties, and the impact on her health has presumably been much greater, even if she merely restricted her intake of food to the barest requirements for survival.
What would happen if Suu Kyi died or became so unhealthy that she couldn’t continue her role as the political leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement? It is something we need to ask in light of the fact that she has spent 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest, without regular access to proper medical treatment and under immense psychological pressure.
Most people would prefer not to think of Burma’s future without Suu Kyi. Her absence from politics would probably be a death blow to the already weakened democracy struggle, because she has no obvious successor as leader of the movement.
On the other hand, the ruling generals would probably see Suu Kyi’s demise as an end to an era of trouble. After all, she is even now regarded as a threat to their hold on power.
From the generals’ viewpoint, there are many reasons to believe that the future without Suu Kyi would be very bright indeed. For one thing, they would not have to fear a repeat of the non-violent confrontation that she initiated in early 1989, when she called on people to resist unlawful decrees imposed by the junta. The movement continued for months, until July 19, when the regime used an overwhelming show of force to stop a planned Martyrs’ Day march. The next day, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for the first time.
Another reason the generals would be happy to see the back of Suu Kyi is that it would probably mean no more electoral upsets like the one the world witnessed in 1990. Despite the regime’s efforts to ensure a victory for the pro-junta party, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy inflicted a stunning defeat, winning more than 80 percent of seats in parliament. It was Suu Kyi who urged her party to contest the election, despite the fact that she was still under house arrest at the time and not permitted to participate herself. Even within the confines of her home, she showed the generals that she could make life difficult for them.
It was also Suu Kyi who called for a boycott of the National Convention in 1995. She made this decision a few months after being released from six years of house arrest because she deemed the convention convened to draft a new constitution as undemocratic. The generals have never forgiven her for continuing to resist their plans even after they were good enough to give her back her freedom.
In 1998, Suu Kyi once again proved to be a thorn in the side of the generals. That was the year she spearheaded the creation of the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament, a body that directly challenged the junta’s right to rule.
The generals wasted no time in arresting members of the newly formed group.
Since then, Suu Kyi has enjoyed a few brief interludes of relative freedom. Each time, she demonstrated that her immense appeal was in no way diminished by her long absence from the public eye. She campaigned around the country, drawing crowds of thousands eager to hear her speak. Her engaging and courageous speeches inspired hope in the hearts of countless ordinary Burmese—and intense anger among the country’s military rulers, who watched her every move and did everything they could to keep her away from her adoring audiences.
All of these episodes have only served to convince the generals that they need to keep her on a tight rein if they want to carry through their agenda. Last year, they finally succeeded in completing their constitution, which they will use to usher in a new era of military-dominated “democracy” that excludes a democratic opposition. It is doubtful that they would have been able to achieve this long-pursued goal if they hadn’t kept Suu Kyi confined within the walls of her residential compound for the past five years.
Suu Kyi’s reputation as a troublemaker within the military government’s ruling circles has earned her a further—illegal—extension of her current period of house arrest. Although she should have been released in May under Section 10 (b) of the State Protection Act, which only allows for a maximum sentence of five years, she is still in detention.
The regime is now preparing for the next stage in its transition to quasi-civilian rule—the 2010 election, which is intended to undo the damage of the 1990 vote. But in order to reverse the tide of history, the generals know that Suu Kyi must remain detained and silenced.
If Suu Kyi’s health were to fail prior to the election, it would probably deliver the regime the victory that has eluded it for the past two decades. Her death would not spell the end of the democracy movement, but it would leave it greatly weakened.
Although Suu Kyi has spent most of the past two decades almost completely cut off from the outside world, she is still Burma’s single greatest hope for democratic change. She is also a leader who is widely trusted by people of every ethnicity in Burma, and one who is respected by the international community, which will have a major role to play in helping to restore the country’s economy.
She has the rare ability to speak to the generals in a straightforward, unflinching manner. Indeed, her power derives almost entirely from what she calls “plain honesty in politics.” Her courage, dedication and steadfast adherence to the truth have empowered her to speak for the people of Burma in a way that no one else can at this point in the country’s history.
After 46 years under military rule, Burma is very lucky to have someone who can still command such immense power through the sheer force of her convictions. Without her, life would go on, but the country would be impoverished in a way that makes even its current circumstances seem tolerable by comparison.