Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s long road to democracy

By Tim Robertson | 27 Oct 15

“A share in two revolutions”, Thomas Paine wrote to George Washington in 1789, “is living to some purpose!” That same sentiment may well be applied to the Burmese leader Aung San, who didn’t just share in two colonial struggles, but led Burma’s battles for independence against both the British and the Japanese.

He is, today, considered the father of modern Burma. Though he was assassinated by political rivals in 1947 at the age of just 32, his achievements remain unparalleled and his death marked the start of Burma’s descent into more than half a century of incompetent authoritarian rule.

It was during the Second World War that Aung San’s plans for independence began to crystallise. Burma’s geography and abundant resources made it one of the most important battlefields in the Pacific theatre during the war. Aung San initially sided with the Japanese, who promised him and his comrades military training in return for their support against the Allies. But after witnessing Japanese fascism up close he returned to Burma, disillusioned and uneasy about their promises of independence. He reached out to the British and promised to assist them in defeating the Japanese if they, in return, assured the Burmese people independence once the war was over. They did and on 27 March 1945, Aung San led the revolt that threw the Japanese out.

After the war he headed the negotiations with Britain and made it clear that he wanted nothing short of complete independence from Burma’s old imperial masters. Unlike Gandhi, Aung San warned the British that he had “no inhibitions of any kind” about “contemplating a violent or non-violent struggle or both”.

As the leader of the interim government he led the discussions at the Panlong Conference where the country’s ethnic minorities agreed to unite and join the Union of Burma in its struggle for independence. The Agreement was signed in February 1947 and Burma’s independence was assured. Tragically, Aung San was murdered by political rivals just before he saw it realised on 4 January 1948.

His commitment to the Panlong Agreement and a unified Burma stands in stark contrast to the attitude of his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, towards the ethnic Rohingya minority. Aung San Suu Kyi has continually refused to speak out against the state-sanctioned violence committed against them. While human rights organisations warn of genocide and ethnic cleansing, she continues to pander to Buddhist nationalists with populist lines about ensuring the rule of law and clarifying issues of citizenship.

In a country as diverse and multi-ethnic as Burma, it has been all too easy for political leaders to exploit tensions and sectarianism for their own political gain. Aung San Suu Kyi has, sadly, followed this same tradition. Since returning to Burma, she has done much to quell the revolutionary spirit embodied by her father but which first awoke at the start of the 20th century. After Aung San’s death it was Burma’s students – often carrying his portrait – that, at great personal risk, took to the streets to protest the tyranny that engulfed their country and tore it apart.

It was on her return to Burma to care for her dying mother that Aung San Suu Kyi first witnessed just how ruthless General Ne Win’s regime could be in stamping out dissent. In what became known as the 8888 Uprising (8 August, 1988), the students of Rangoon University marched in protest against decades of economic and political mismanagement. Lay people and monks, all demanding change, joined the students.

The regime responded with trademark violence and thousands (the government put the number at 350) of protesters were killed. In a country all too familiar with systemic violence, the scale and ruthlessness of the government response shocked many. It spelt the end for Ne Win, who was forced to step down as party chairman. In his resignation speech he ominously warned: “the army has no tradition of shooting into the air. It would shoot straight to hit”.

After half a century of authoritarian one-party rule, during which opposition groups were mercilessly and swiftly crushed, there was no viable alternative to the ruling regime. Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence in this vacuum; it was her pedigree that gave her legitimacy and provided a unifying force for the people. She did, in that sense, use it to encourage democratic reform and the implementation of the rule of law. However, as her personality cult has developed in Burma her familial links with the country’s history have given her an aura that has immunised her against criticism.

It’s odd that in a country with such an extraordinary radical and revolutionary history, Aung San Suu Kyi looks further afield for inspiration in confronting the regime’s oppression. She regularly invokes Gandhi for her cause. Like him, her deep spiritualism (he was a Hindu, while she’s a Buddhist) has been central to her struggle and, more specifically, her absolutist belief in pacifism.

But as George Orwell once noted, pacifism is both ineffective and self-defeating against totalitarian regimes – they simply “disappear” you. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi has always been protected because of who she is. While she was under house arrest at her Rangoon mansion, other dissidents were tortured, killed or locked-up in the country’s notorious Insein Jail. Nevertheless, she has always preached non-violence, nullifying the resistance against the Burmese junta as young men and women who are willing to die for their struggle were helped in doing just that by the regime.

The names of most of the Burmese people that have given their lives in the fight for a better future for their people will never be known. Others, like the late, great Win Tin – journalist, activist and politician who spent 19 years in prison – have had their stories obscured and overshadowed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s.

If one wants to overthrow a brutal and repressive government, while maintaining an unwavering and unmitigated belief in non-violence, one has to acknowledge that dissidents and protestors will be killed in that process. This is what Aung San Suu Kyi either fails to recognise or refuses to concede. This is what she demands of her followers.

Since the assassination of Aung Sun, the Burmese people have periodically shown that they’ve been prepared to unite and oppose military rule, but have been unrewarded for their sacrifices. Instead, they have been forced to live under a government and leadership that was not just authoritarian, but also perhaps the most incompetent in the world.

They took Asia’s largest economy and all but destroyed it. More inclined to make decisions on the advice of their astrologers than their economists, Burma’s leaders ruined a country that, despite being devastated by the Second World War, showed enormous promise. Aung San wanted to build a nation based on socialist and Burmese values that played a significant role in Asia and the wider international community.

So when Aung San Suu Kyi came along, those expectations – perhaps unfairly – were transferred onto her. The military junta has never been able to fully extinguish the people’s hopes and aspirations, embodied in their national hero, Aung San. That’s the groundswell of popular support his daughter had behind her; that’s the force she had to mobilise for her cause – for Burma’s cause.

But she has squandered it. And Burma continues to be hamstrung by ethnic violence, the same military functionaries – albeit in a slightly different guise – rule over the country and Aung San Suu Kyi is increasingly marginalised. That will be her legacy.

Tim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. You can follow him on Twitter @timrobertson12 

Feature image: Jason/Flickr