The world's most famous prisoner has little to show for ten years of struggle. Is the Burmese opposition crumbling?by Adrian Levy / July 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Everyone knows that Burma is in a mess. A nation once called the Golden Land in tribute to its giant gem pits has sold them off to the Chinese in return for guns and tanks. Thousands of miles of ancient hardwood forest have been torn down and replanted with opium fields. The once lush rice bowl of Asia can no longer feed itself. Millions of Burmese are addled by drugs and hundreds of thousands infected with HIV, while the general who serves as health minister assures them that “Aids is a foreign disease.” The regime has launched dozens of military campaigns against its people and more than 1m of Burma’s 46m-strong population are unaccounted for.
Most people also know that Burma is the setting for an extraordinary political morality tale—Asia’s beauty and the beast. While the world’s most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been forced to fight for democracy behind the locked gates of her home in University Avenue in Rangoon, the country has been slowly strangled by a secretive junta whose fiscal policies are drawn up by astrologers.
There was thus great excitement on 9th January this year when the UN special envoy, Razali Ismail, announced that the State Peace and Development Council which runs Burma had agreed to talks with Suu Kyi. Western newspapers debated whether the talks—the first in five years—meant that she would finally be permitted to play a role in Burma’s future. Some reports even speculated that the junta had decided to recognise the results of the last election, held in May 1990, when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 out of 485 seats.
Six weeks after the special envoy’s announcement, another news item emerged from the news-shy country that appeared to bolster Suu Kyi’s position. A helicopter carrying 29 of Burma’s senior military men had plunged into the jungle north of Rangoon. Among the dead was one of Suu Kyi’s harshest critics who had called for her to be “crushed without mercy”; Lt Gen Tin Oo was a leading member of a hard line faction that opposed weakening the military’s grip.
What the state media did not reveal was that the crash on 19th February was no accident. According to US intelligence, there had been a gunfight inside the helicopter, one general firing upon another. Until then there had been only glimpses of a rumoured power struggle within the military elite—such as the letter bomb that killed Tin Oo’s daughter in April 1997. In any case, Suu Kyi’s supporters took heart. Tin Oo’s death removed an obstacle to dialogue, leaving the junta’s reformist faction in command.
But another more startling story that has gone barely reported in the west is now beginning to emerge because of these same talks. Within the NLD and without, in pro-democracy newspapers, in Rangoon diplomatic circles and in the offices of NGOs that were previously unflinchingly loyal to Suu Kyi, it is now being said that she has failed to give direction to the democracy movement and lacks policy ideas or strategic grasp. She is even accused by some of her own MPs of being too committed to pacifism and western-style democracy to cut a deal in what are bound to be murky negotiations. There is growing concern that her years in isolation have made her haughty, distant and unwilling to listen.
Some of those who have raised these concerns have been ostracised and expelled from the NLD. But this has only prompted others to express their doubts in public. One of Suu Kyi’s former aides has accused her publicly of squandering the democracy movement’s momentum and of missing critical opportunities. Another, the party’s elder statesman and architect of the 1990 election victory, has followed suit. Moreover, Burma’s myriad ethnic groups—the Shan, Karen, Karenni, Chin, Arakanese amongst others—who rallied to Suu Kyi’s side in 1990, have also begun to turn their backs on the NLD, putting their case through their own jungle coalition.
The recent internal and external dissent follows years of persecution by a vindictive junta—known as the SLORC until advised to change its name by an American public relations consultancy. In Suu Kyi’s own 12 years of formal or informal house arrest, hundreds of party workers have been killed and her own husband, Michael Aris, died of cancer in England in 1999 having been refused a last visa to see her. (If she had left Burma to see him, she would never have been let back into the country.) Since 1990, more than 65 per cent of the NLD’s elected MPs and party members have resigned, been imprisoned or gone into exile. Tens of thousands of exhausted NLD supporters have just faded away. Now many in Rangoon privately fear that Suu Kyi will be unable to convince the generals that she still wields the kind of popular backing that has forced change so recently in Indonesia, Serbia and the Philippines.
When in July 1989 the Burmese junta first placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, they thrust her onto the international stage. Amnesty International declared her a prisoner of conscience and the following May, when the junta failed to honour the election result, international accolades rained down, including the Nobel peace prize. The democracy movement was bound together by global good will and by Suu Kyi’s ability to endure.
Then on 10th July 1995 the junta relaxed the terms of her confinement and pictures of Suu Kyi surrounded by her jubilant supporters were beamed across the world. “The forces for democracy remain strong and dedicated,” she told an impromptu rally. But now that Suu Kyi was freer to move around she would be judged on something more tangible than suffering: her leadership skills.
Divisions soon began to emerge. In November 1995, Suu Kyi announced that she was boycotting the junta’s National Convention, a committee formed to devise a blueprint for democratic government and something of a sop to the international community. Her decision was influenced by clauses in the convention that guaranteed the generals a leading role in any future civilian government and barred from domestic politics anyone with foreign relatives. But what shocked some NLD MPs and party workers was the fact that their leader had severed their sole line of communication with the junta without consulting them.
Two NLD MPs, who had spent many years in prison while Suu Kyi was under house arrest, publicly accused their leader of acting unilaterally. One of them, Than Tun, recalled: “I objected openly, partly because we had no idea what to do after the walkout. Suu Kyi just shouted at me and Thein Kyi.” While the NLD debated what would replace its involvement in the National Convention, Suu Kyi stuck to her belief that economic sanctions—which she had lobbied for since 1988—would break the regime. Her lobbying had met with some success. Although no large country had formal legal sanctions, the US and the EU had discouraged trade and since the early 1990s trade with the west has fallen sharply. Several big companies, including Land Rover and Coca Cola, have closed their operations in Burma.
In the summer of 1996 Than Tun and Thein Kyi challenged their leader again. They presented Suu Kyi with a ten-page report, signed by seven NLD MPs, that called on her to adopt “more realistic policies.” Not only was the NLD refusing to negotiate with the junta but it was also advocating a strategy that cut the Burmese people off from the outside world. The economic embargo had failed to bring the junta to its knees but, the dissenters claimed, it had scared off progressive foreign investors who would have introduced tools for democratic dissent such as fax machines, e-mail and mobile phones and access to the ideas of the democratic world.
A meeting of the NLD executive was convened to address the report. “They weren’t happy,” Than Tun recalled. “They said they wouldn’t expel us as long as we didn’t try to organise other members. I told Suu Kyi ‘you must be more tolerant, we’re only ten people—we’re not a threat.'”
The NLD leadership closed ranks. A resolution was passed that gave Suu Kyi and her chairman, Aung Shwe, complete control over decision-making. They argued that this was made necessary by the junta’s outlawing of NLD party congresses. “If there had been a secret vote, a lot of MPs would have voted against her. They know that if we go on like this the party will wither away. The NLD does not tolerate any dissent,” Than Tun said.
On 6th January 1997, he and his colleague Thein Kyi were expelled from the NLD, accused of “disobeying policy” and “creating disunity.” Suu Kyi broadened her sanctions call to include NGOs stationed in Burma, who she accused of prolonging the life of the junta. “No aid, trade or investment,” went the new slogan. One aid worker told us how his Burmese staff, who had risked arrest to meet Suu Kyi, were reduced to tears after she accused them of being stooges. According to Suu Kyi all aid had to be funnelled through the NLD but, as the NLD now barely existed outside Rangoon, that policy prohibited all undercover condom giveaways, HIV education campaigns, malnutrition studies and rice distribution programmes. A second international NGO that was in the midst of delicate negotiations to set up an HIV project in the north, where there is an HIV problem of gigantic proportions, told us how they were ridiculed and lambasted by Suu Kyi at a diplomatic function. A minute from an aid conference the following year in Amsterdam records how one representative from a well-known organisation “ruefully conceded that it was easier for international NGOs when Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned.”
In April 1997, Suu Kyi’s campaign for sanctions scored a formal victory when the US imposed an official ban on new investment in Burma. But soon after the NLD was hit by an internal tremor. U Kyi Maung, a founder member of the NLD, and the man who drew Suu Kyi into politics in 1988, withdrew from politics. Friends talked of his concerns about the party’s inability to countenance dissent. Certainly, self-imposed exile was a radical move for a man who had written the NLD manifesto. While U Kyi Maung stayed silent, Suu Kyi publicly belittled his contribution, stating that the man she had once called her “guide, mentor and friend” had never been “my key adviser.”
This storm had barely settled when another of Suu Kyi’s close aides broke ranks. In February 1998, the Far Eastern Economic Review published an extraordinary article entitled “The Burmese Fairy Tale” written by Ma Thanegi, who had served three years in prison after joining the democracy movement. “My fellow former political prisoners and I are beginning to wonder if our sacrifices have been worthwhile,” Ma Thanegi wrote. “Almost a decade after it all began we are concerned that the work we started has been squandered and the momentum wasted… Suu could have changed our lives dramatically. With her influence and prestige, she could have asked major aid donors, such as the US and Japan, for help. She could have encouraged responsible companies to invest here, creating jobs and helping to build a stable economy. She could have struck up a constructive dialogue with the government and laid the ground for a sustainable democracy…We had hoped that when she was released from house arrest that the country would move forward again,” she wrote. “Suu’s approach has been moral and uncompromising, catching the imagination of the world. Unfortunately, it has come at a real price for the rest of us.”
Ma Thanegi said that in Burma “any public criticism of the NLD is met with accusations of treachery.” In the months following her outburst, democracy campaigners laid siege to Burmese chat-rooms and websites, denouncing her as a traitor and suggesting that her article was written by the generals.
On 16th September 1998, the NLD finally announced a policy to fill the void created by its withdrawal from the National Convention three years earlier. Suu Kyi unveiled a ten-member Committee Representing the People’s Parliament (CRPP) that “annulled” all laws enacted by the regime, a gesture which provoked a harsh response: 110 NLD MPs were jailed and 43 NLD offices closed.
The following spring 28 NLD MPs, including Tin Tun Maung, a central committee member, and Kyi Win, a former student leader, said the unsayable and called for the NLD to hold talks with the regime without Suu Kyi. In May 1999, Tin Tun Maung, Kyi Win and two others were berated by Suu Kyi as “lackeys,” accused of “colluding with military intelligence” and suspended from the party.
It is inevitable that an opposition movement such as the NLD will have disagreements and even splits. Many of these schisms will be engineered by the regime itself, a sophisticated exponent of the politics of divide and rule. But even outside the closed world of NLD politics, support for Suu Kyi is beginning to fracture. Student campaigners who had triggered the mass democracy uprisings of August 1988, in which thousands were shot by the junta, are frustrated at the lack of progress. For the past decade, many of them have taken up arms against the Burmese regime from malarial jungle bases or campaigned for her from squalid camps on the Thai border. Their families back in Burma have been persecuted, while they have forfeited the right to return home.?
In October 1999 a breakaway student group called the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors laid siege with automatic weapons to the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok. It was a desperate measure, the students claimed, to raise the democracy struggle from where it had slumped. Their action was dismissed by the NLD as inflammatory. But then a magazine published by exiled Burmese students in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, warned Suu Kyi last year that she was running out of time. Unless her party consolidated its victory of 1990 very soon, she would be remembered as “a victim of history.”
The breach that has opened up between Suu Kyi and Burma’s ethnic groups matters even more. They make up 30 per cent of the population and until now have fought alongside the NLD. Yet last year, in Shan State in north-eastern Burma, a senior officer of the Shan State Army (a rebel force fighting to expel the Burmese regime from the region) said to us, “I have met Aung San Suu Kyi and all she ever talks about is democracy for the Burmese people. She never has anything to say about the needs of ethnic groups like the Shan. ‘Democracy first,’ she tells us ‘and then I’ll consider your demands.’ We’re sick of waiting.” Now the Shan and others have broken away, dividing the front pitted against the junta into various micro-nationalist struggles which are probably hopeless.
What does Suu Kyi have to say about the ethnic groups? “I have not studied the culture of the other ethnic peoples of Burma deeply enough to comment,” she told an interviewer in 1999, “apart from the fact that my mother always taught me to think of them as very close to us, emphasising how loyal they were.” A patrician response that provides little encouragement to the Shan State Army and others like it.
Suu Kyi often says that free debate is the barometer of a healthy democratic movement but, questioned in 1999 by Asiaweek about internal dissent, she said this about her critics. “We have had a few people leave but they were working with the authorities… Not everyone has the staying power.” To which her critics reply that not everyone has the patience of a saint or wants to see Burma’s costly struggle for democracy descend into an endless battle of wills. Whenever questioned about her achievements, the NLD leader cites the numbers of her supporters who have been murdered or imprisoned by the regime, as if to say that suffering is an achievement in itself. Suu Kyi’s international supporters stress her personal sacrifice: two sons growing up in Oxford without her, the tragic death of her husband, thousands of miles away. No one can deny that this is a brutal regime, but where is all this tremendous suffering leading??
Suu Kyi has stifled debate within her own party and appears to have no domestic strategy beyond her opposition to armed conflict, mass demonstrations or civil disobedience. Her belief is that personal freedom is curtailed inside Burma to such an extent that only a powerful external lobby will force the generals to change. “The opinion of the international community cannot be ignored. No country is an island unto itself,” Suu Kyi has reassured her supporters. When she called for sanctions in 1990, she cited their success with South Africa, where Nelson Mandela had been released in February of that year.
But she is not a Mandela—her pacifism rules that out. Indeed, when it became clear that the Burmese regime was not going to honour the election results of May 1990, Suu Kyi instructed her hundreds of thousands of supporters to end their demonstrations. “I do not want to encourage this tradition of bringing about change through violence,” she said.
Can a nation like Burma, forged by thousands of years of conquest, annexation and bloodshed, be reformed through peaceful means alone? How can a state that has had no independent judiciary since 1948 resolve issues of internal dissent unless it is forced to do so? The brief lull in 1990 created by Suu Kyi’s retreat was all the generals needed to regroup and in the months that followed, one of the most significant eras in Burmese history, post-independence from the British, passed.
Having made what some claim was a critical error of judgement, Suu Kyi was now entirely reliant on her sanctions strategy. But Burma, unlike South Africa, does not participate in the global economy and it can endure years of western boycotts. And there are many Asian businesses and organisations, angered by what they see as neo-imperialist meddling, who will invest where Britain and the US will not. The Burmese economy is in shreds, the 41st poorest country in the world—despite being more industrialised than Malaysia in the 1950s. Western sanctions have simply pushed the generals into the arms of the drug barons and forged closer ties with the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).
After the last round of talks between Suu Kyi and the generals broke down in 1994 and she reiterated the need for sanctions, Asean invited the Burmese regime to join it as an observer. Three months after the US imposed a ban on new investment in Burma in April 1997, Asean responded by admitting the country as a full member. And when the talks were announced this year, it was Asean who brokered the meeting. Razali Ismail, the UN special envoy, is an adviser to the Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir, the Burmese regime’s strongest supporter.
So what has Suu Kyi’s alliance with the west brought to the struggle in Burma? It has made her into the world’s most prominent spokesman for “freedom and democracy” after Nelson Mandela. One of Bill Clinton’s last acts as president was to confer upon her the Presidential Medal for Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the US. And we in the west have adopted Burma as our pocket pariah, regarding its people as passive victims in need of salvation.
But surely the time has come for the west to face the limits of sanctions: they have achieved very little and have cost us little. This empty gesture is echoed in the actions of an army of international travellers, some of them with messianic aspirations. James Mawdsley, the British student who was released from prison last October, was one of those who “fell in love with the jungle, the people and their culture” and couldn’t wait to lead the Burmese to freedom. In August 1999, Mawdsley stood in Tachilek market in Shan state for nearly half an hour, handing out cassettes and leaflets highlighting human rights abuses. He was then whisked off to jail, where he found “rapture” with the help of the spiritual exercises of the 15th-century monk Thomas à Kempis.
Mawdsley was released 14 months later and passed directly to Broadcasting House. He was saved by the colour of his skin (and passport) and his romanticism served only to salve his own conscience. “It is we Burmese who pay the price for these empty heroics,” says Ma Thanegi, Suu Kyi’s former aide.
Aung san suu kyi was the preordained leader of Burma’s opposition even though she resisted the mantle for many years. When she returned to the country in March 1988, after almost 20 years of absence in Europe, it was to see her sick mother, Daw Khin Kyi, and not to join the demonstrators protesting at the collapse of the economy.
On 22nd July 1988, Michael Aris and their sons Alexander and Kim, flew to Rangoon to join the vigil at Daw Khin Kyi’s house in University Avenue. A surprise news broadcast the next day drew Suu Kyi away. General Ne Win, Burma’s dictator since his 1962 coup, announced that he was standing down and calling an election. Chillingly, he also warned “if the army shoots it hits—no firing in the air.”
As thousands of protesters were shot, Suu Kyi sought out the old allies of her father General Aung San, the man who led Burma to independence in 1947. Among them was U Kyi Maung, a 69-year-old former colonel and the man who Suu Kyi would dismiss later as a minor influence. It was U Kyi Maung who advised Suu Kyi on her first tentative political steps. On 26th August, with her husband and sons by her side,? Suu Kyi addressed a rally of 500,000 at Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda. “My family knows best how tricky Burmese politics can be and how much my father had to suffer on this account,” she said.
She was referring to the assassination of her father, murdered along with six cabinet colleagues on 19th July 1947, six months after he had obtained Clement Attlee’s signature on an independence charter. Many suspected that the man who ordered the killings was Ne Win, a hard-drinking, womanising former post-office clerk who had clashed with Aung San from the day he enlisted in the independence struggle in 1940.
This (presumed) act of vengeance ensured the beatification of Burma’s untested warrior statesman Aung San. And it explains the excitement that rippled through Rangoon when his daughter took the platform more than 40 years later. One of Suu Kyi’s aides wrote of that day: “The way she talked, her complexion, her features and gestures, were strikingly similar to those of her father. She resembled him in almost every way. I thought she was a female replica… She was the lady to carry on his work.” Millions agreed but for Ne Win she must have been an apparition from his past.
It was the death of Daw Khin Kyi on 27th December 1988 that elevated Suu Kyi and U Kyi Maung’s fledgling party, the NLD, to national consciousness. A state funeral that wound its way through the streets of Rangoon attracted thousands of protesters to University Avenue. The house with the blue gates became a shrine to a dynasty: the main meeting room dominated by a portrait of Aung San, its walls pasted with his writings. Burma’s Camelot was emerging and the generals were appalled.
Outside the country, the romance of an Oxford mother taking on the barbarous generals in a little known Asian nation proved irresistible. Her life-story was embossed with a fable-like quality. The scion of a fated family, separated from her young sons who, back in Britain, waited for glimpses of their mother on television. Her childhood spent riding with Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi; university years at St Hugh’s, Oxford; a marriage on New Year’s Day 1972 to a brilliant young academic to whom she had been introduced by Lord Gore-Booth. An inscrutable, beautiful land stalked by Kipling. Vanity Fair put Suu Kyi on its cover; “Burma’s Saint Joan,” the magazine declared. The west transformed her into a martyr.
Suu Kyi has written of holding on to dharma and metta (loving kindness) in the face of the generals who demonstrate “the banality of evil,” damning Ne Win as a man “who my father disapproved of and despised.” The junta has talked of “annihilating the foreign whore married to a British Jew” and the army chief has said: “I will never deal with those who would have us hung.”
What began as a miracle, the reincarnation of Aung San through his daughter, has degenerated into a kind of recurring nightmare; the Burmese waking up every morning to be reminded of the fear and guilt felt by Ne Win’s heirs towards Aung San’s daughter. Burmese politics are incestuous, with dissidents and ministers often coming from the same elite families. But it seems unlikely that anyone sitting around the table when talks begin will be able to clear the first hurdle—that of Burma’s history.
This is why many in the NLD and the democracy movement are calling for talks without Suu Kyi. Only political horse trading can enable progress, by ensuring that neither side loses face. With her unwavering moral standards and western sensibilities this seems to be something that Suu Kyi will never accept. It is possible that Burma could adopt a power-sharing agreement, a peculiarly Asian form of democracy not unlike that which thrives in Thailand, where army generals have abandoned their khakis for pin-striped suits. Would Aung San Suu Kyi be able to cope with this small shuffle towards the light.