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The Military vs. Burma's Gandhi

In moving against Aung San Suu Kyi, the government ensures she remains the rallying point of public resistance.

June 04, 2003|Josef Silverstein | Josef Silverstein is professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he was a specialist on Burma and Southeast Asia.

The regime in Burma can murder its opponents, intimidate and torture them and violate their rights on a daily basis, but despite all its weapons and all its power, it apparently cannot defeat the charismatic woman who has stood up to it for the last 15 years, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi and her party won the parliamentary election in 1990, and a year later she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work. But she was never allowed to serve. Instead, she spent 7 1/2 years under house arrest, during which time her husband died in England and she was separated from her sons. Yet she did not renounce her cause.

She was finally released a year ago when conditions seemed to ease. But now, the situation is worsening again.

The military regime -- which renamed the nation Myanmar -- this week detained Suu Kyi, closed the offices of her political party and shut down universities.

These were the latest actions in an increasingly forceful campaign initiated against the democracy movement since Suu Kyi tested the boundaries of her freedom by traveling across the nation for months in an effort to rebuild her party.

For 15 years, there has been an uneven struggle between the regime, which holds all the weapons and doesn't hesitate to use them against the unarmed people, and Suu Kyi.

Some of the military rulers have limited education and knowledge of the outside world, yet they impose policies they do not understand and drive the nation ever deeper into economic chaos. They ignore international criticism as they violate human rights.

Their rival -- a brilliant woman with a modern education, worldly experience, a deep knowledge of and belief in Theravada Buddhism (the faith of most of the people) and the peaceful resistance tactics and strategy of Mohandas Gandhi -- has committed herself to restore democracy through peaceful means.

The military rulers have no idea how to eliminate her as a rival, short of killing her and provoking a civil war.

What is the basis of Suu Kyi's power to attract so much support and loyalty that some people are ready to give their lives, if need be?

Probably the most important is that she is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, who from 1945 to 1947 led the nation to the threshold of independence and was assassinated by a political rival before he could achieve his goal. On Aug. 26, 1988, at a political rally in Rangoon (now called Yangon), his daughter became the people's leader as she spoke for the first time and challenged the military's right to rule and deny freedom to the people. To many in the audience she appeared to have picked up her father's mantle.

The links to her father are more than blood and symbolism. It is also her style of speech, her themes, her concern and interest in the people and willingness to stand with them and share their suffering.

She endured years of house arrest and isolation, the regime's refusal to allow her to return if she left the country to be with her dying husband in London and her sons. She gave up a pleasant life as the wife of an Oxford don to remain in Burma to be with the people. The people knew this.

Suu Kyi had lived and traveled throughout the world and married a non-Buddhist but never lost touch with her Burmese Buddhist roots. She raised her sons within the faith and lived according to its religious precepts. She has asked for no special privileges and treatment and has been given none.

The world has recognized her achievements and sacrifices and rewarded her with the Nobel Peace Prize and other important awards. She has not used these gifts for herself; instead she has given them to help others. This is the woman whom the people walk miles to see, wait hours to hear and reach out to touch. This is the woman who continues to challenge an army of 400,000.

In launching a new attack against her, the military leaders have again made certain that she stands at the center of political affairs with the support of the people.

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