Western attacks on Burma's pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, merely assist the military regimeby John Jackson / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
What impression would you get of Nelson Mandela from an article which reported only the views of his opponents in the ANC? The answer is obvious. Unfortunately for Burma’s pro- democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (Daw Suu henceforth), detention denies her the freedom to challenge unfounded criticism of her leadership. The portrait painted of Daw Suu in last month’s Prospect by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy must therefore be challenged by those who can.
The first thing to say is that Daw Suu has not courted the admiration which she attracts from around the world. She hasn’t chosen personal suffering as a political strategy, as Scott-Clark/Levy imply, she is just one of many for whom personal suffering is a consequence of opposing military rule in Burma.
Moreover, the article is based on a contradiction. It asserts that on the one hand Daw Suu is too hardline, while on the other, she’s too passive. Since her release in 1995, she has been criticised for not mobilising a mass uprising against the regime, and at the same time criticised for not being conciliatory enough. Far from displaying strategic na?vety, however, her policy of non-violent pressure has led to dialogue with the regime whilst avoiding the break up of Burma. Daw Suu accepts that the military will play a major role in Burma’s transition years, and is willing to make certain compromises. The goal of accountable government is neither unrealistic nor immodest. We must now await the outcome of the present talks.
Perhaps most damaging is Scott-Clark/Levy’s misleading claim, based on conversations with a handful of Daw Suu’s critics, that support for her in Burma has evaporated. They talk about loss of backing within her party and among Burma’s myriad ethnic groups. Minorities have good reason to be wary of Rangoon politics. They have suffered the most from Burman domination, civil war and the denial of human rights. However, Daw Suu is probably the one politician from the majority Burman ethnic group in whom they do have a cautious faith. In March, the leadership of non-Burman ethnic groups, including the Shan, Chin, Karen and Karenni, made a declaration of support for dialogue between Daw Suu and the military. They want talks which include ethnic leaders, but are willing to accept an initial confidence building process.
Another false claim is that Daw Suu is authoritarian because her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has expelled members for speaking against party policy. This is disingenuous. The two NLD MPs mentioned were expelled, not simply for criticising party policy but for the way they went about it. Instead of voicing concern at an internal meeting, they wrote a ten-page report attacking the leadership, and sent it to the junta. Given the regime’s attempts to destroy the NLD through the use of spies and agent provocateurs, it is amazing that the party deals with disciplinary proceedings like any normal party in a democratic state. The NLD is unlike many other resistance movements, where the fate of “dissenters” has not been so humane. The maintenance of democratic procedure in a repressive state bodes well for Burma’s future.
Millions of people joined the NLD before the elections in 1990. It is true that thousands have since left. But to suggest they have “just faded away” is doing the regime’s work. Read the reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Rapporteur for Burma-each and every day NLD members are coerced and forced to resign. They are threatened with arrest, sacked from public employment, their businesses are closed down and they can expect visits from the intelligence services in the dead of night. For the last few years Burma’s newspapers, all state run, have on a weekly basis published details of NLD resignations. They say it is an indication of the NLD’s failings rather than the regime’s repression. Scott-Clark/Levy seem to agree.
Neither Daw Suu nor the NLD have insisted that all aid should go through them, as Scott-Clark/Levy claim, and with good reason. Any party in Burma found receiving foreign money, regardless of its intended purposes, can be disbanded and its leaders jailed.
The only thing worse than the inaccuracy of this piece is its timing. At a moment when the pro-democracy movement needs all the international support it can muster for talks with the regime, the article can only undermine the potential for such support in the west. The lives of over 45m people depend on these talks succeeding. Unjustly undermining the one person who can deliver a prospect of peace is the last thing the Burmese people need.