Suu Kyi vs the Military Junta saga

by Prakash Bhandari in Jaipur

Former external affairs  minister, K. Natwar Singh says, if he is asked to name the most famous living women in the world, he would rank the ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi as No 2. His No. 1 woman is Queen Elizabeth. While the Queen has already celebrated her blue sapphire jubilee as the monarch, Suu Kyi, who spent a good two decades in jail under military dictatorship in Myanmar, is again incarcerated  after the February 1 military coup.

Suu Kyi was once seen as a beacon for human rights – a principled activist who gave up her freedom to challenge the ruthless army generals who ruled Myanmar for decades. Her biographer, Peter Popham writes that “honors  including the Nobel Peace Prize clattered around her like hailstones”.

General Min Aung Hlaing, dismissed the democratically elected Myanmar government on a Sunday. In the November 2020 election, her party, the National League of  Democracy (NLD), won 80 percent of the vote cast. The generals said the elections were  seriously flawed, even after the national election commission ruled otherwise. Suu Kyi was ousted on the flimsy ground that she  had illegally imported some walkies-talkies. It was nothing less than cruel fate that she was sent to jail for  possessing the communication toys.

The dictator generals of Myanmar are known for their whims and fancies. In 2004, when Rajiv Gandhi as  the Prime Minister went to Myanmar, he met General Ne Win, the President for 28 years and suggested that more Indian tourists should come to Burma and more Burmese come to India for pilgrimage as Lord Buddha was born in India. The General said,  “No Rajiv, I don’t like tourists. They are a pest. I made the mistake of allowing tourists to come to my country. Soon hundreds came and  gave my people fancy ideas. I have now decided to close that tourism nuisance.”. Rajiv Gandhi was left speechless.

Aung  Suu Kyi is the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San. He was assassinated when she was only two years old, just before Myanmar gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948.

In 1960 she went to India with her mother Daw Khin Kyi, who had been appointed Myanmar’s ambassador in Delhi. She lived and studied in Delhi.

Four years later she went to Oxford University in the UK, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics. There she met her future husband, academic Michael Aris.

After stints of living and working in Japan and Bhutan, she settled in the UK to raise their two children, Alexander and Kim, but Myanmar was never far from her thoughts.

When her mother became critically ill in 1988, she returned to Myanmar to serve her ailing mother. This was the time when Myanmar was facing political upheaval and the people were demanding democracy. She went on to lead the revolt against the then-dictator, General Ne Win.

As thousands of students, office workers and monks had taken to the streets demanding democratic reform, Suu Kyi said in a speech in Yangon in August 1988: “I could not as my father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on.”

She went on to lead the revolt against the then-dictator, General Ne Win.

Inspired by the non-violent campaigns of Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi, she organized rallies and travelled around the country, calling for peaceful democratic reform and free elections.

Suu Kyi spent nearly 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010. Her personal struggle to bring democracy to the then military-ruled Myanmar made her an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression.

In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, while still under house arrest, and hailed as “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless”.

In 2015, she led her party, NLD, to victory in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 25 years.

When the 2008 Constitution was implemented, it  actually set up a system whereby the military still maintained enough power through its veto power and control of a 25 block of parliamentary seats, to block any reforms that would lead to real change.

This was particularly the case given they had banned NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. The Myanmar constitution forbade her from becoming president because she has children who are foreign nationals. But Suu Kyi, now 75, was widely seen as de facto leader with Win Myint as the figurehead president.

The one blemish on Suu Kyi’s record came in  2017. The Myanmar military launched a brutal assault on the Rohingya  ethnic group in Rakhine in Western Myanmar.  She did not oppose the military’s actions as the military had hoped, which would have cost her a great deal of popular support. The Islamic nations condemned her for allowing the butchering of the Rohingya Muslims. A few lakhs fled and took refuge in the neighboring Bangladesh as unwelcome guests.

Suu Kyi denied the military’s culpability, joined in the military’s political game of not recognizing the Rohingya as a nationalist cause. She defended the military, most recently in 2019 in the International Court of Justice.

In 2020, her NLD once again won a landslide majority, getting even more votes than in 2015. But the military’s front, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, claimed election fraud. On January 28, the country’s election commission rejected  these claims. The day parliament was to reconvene, the military arrested  Suu Kyi along with many other political leaders. A state of emergency was declared, handing power to the military for a full year.

Some now believe she should no longer be the ubiquitous face of the nascent struggle to free the country from military dictatorship. Myanmar has witnessed so many coups. But braves like Suu Kyi would arrive to free the country from the clutches of the military dictators.

As so many coups and “corrective moves” made before, the future of the country is in the military’s hands. Sooner or later military rule in Myanmar will become stronger and stronger. But only until it threatens to actually lead to real change. Then Myanmar is likely to see the cycle repeated again. Politics moves slowly in Myanmar – the military likes it that way.

The coup in Myanmar is an issue that concerns India. India has always opposed military rule there. New Delhi  gave asylum to the first democratically elected Prime Minister, U Nu, and his family and later to Aung Suu Kyi. It severed diplomatic relations with Yangon when it was ruled by the military rulers. India’s pro-democracy position of the 1980s and 90’s helped in restoring confidence between the two nations and the  diplomatic relations were  restored when  Gen Ne Win was still in power in 2004. China has been accused of meddling with Myanmar’s ethnic politics and it has helped the militia forces by secretly supplying them arms which made the generals wary of Beijing. But India has a clean record and it has also helped build Myanmar economically.

Just after the bloodless coup in  Myanmar, the Indian ministry of external affairs issued a strategic statement saying that India believes that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld.

India may opt for ending the diplomatic relationship with Myanmar again. But India has a relationship with several military regimes and several non-democratic countries. India cannot choose a government of other countries. Cordiality should replace diplomatic caution. The emergency has been imposed for a year, India will have to wait and watch.


Image courtesy of (Photo courtesy EPA)

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