Genocide defender toppled! Why Democracies Should Care - Aung San Suu Kyi
Hailed as the ‘Mandela of the East’, Aung San Suu Kyi has profited from the vogue that non-violent prodemocracy campaigning and decades of house arrest has afforded her. Modest, eloquent and refined in disposition, Aung San Suu Kyi is the Oxford-educated, youngest daughter of Aung San — the father of the nation of Myanmar. 1988 saw Suu Kyi rise to prominence aghast with the totalitarian military junta failing to carry out her father’s legacy of continued democratisation, ham-fistedly crushing protests - leading to the bloody deaths of potentially thousands. The junta ruled via the ‘Burma Socialist Programme Party’ which through keenly practised economic isolationism and high military spending led Myanmar to become one of the most impoverished nations on the planet. During that year of unrest, Suu Kyi leveraged her connections and standing to found the National League for Democracy (NLD) and just two years later the 1990 elections saw the NLD win a landslide 81% of seats in parliament. The junta however, refused to hand over power and the results were swiftly nullified. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest where she remained unwavering, confined for 15 of the next 21 years as one of the world’s most darling political prisoners.
While incarcerated she was awarded the Sakharov prize and a Nobel Peace Prize - the prize money of which she used to establish a health and education trust for the Burmese people.
“Suu Kyi’s struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression…’’ — 1991 Nobel Committee
Without official power the NLD acted in opposition to the ruling junta and Suu Kyi’s continued influence was warily monitored. At her home she received visits from government representatives and the country’s de facto leader, General Than Shwe. In 1995 she was released from house arrest and began speaking to large crowds gathered outside her gates. Over the next year, resentment in the ranks of those she still openly opposed grew. She was invited to leave the country and on her refusal to do so, intimidation tactics were employed. Whilst traveling in a motorcade with other NLD leaders, a crowd of 200 hired goons descended on the convoy. Suu Kyi and the others escaped - their cars suffered the brunt of the assault.
In 1997 Suu Kyi’s husband of 25 years, Michael Aris, an Oxford academic, was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. Despite repeated appeals from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Pope John Paul II and various heads of state the government denied Aris a visa. Instead they again encouraged Suu Kyi to leave the country to be reunited with her husband and children in the UK. Sceptical of the government’s assurance of an unimpeded return, Suu Kyi elected to remain in Myanmar. Aris died in 1999 still cheering on a wife he’d seen five times since her imprisonment began a decade prior.
“… I was always aware others had given up more than me. I never forget that my colleagues who are in prison suffer not only physically, but mentally for their families who have no security outside — in the larger prison of Burma under authoritarian rule.” — Suu Kyi, 1998
In 2003 after briefly being released, Aung San Suu Kyi, her party and her supporters were set upon by a mob much more organised than years before. The Asian Legal Resource Centre states that up to 5000 people were brought to a remote rural location to attack the convoy at two planned sites. Before the assault began they threatened locals to remain indoors and after it was concluded, the authorities searched for and arrested surviving victims. This state-sponsored pro-junta mob beat at least 70 people associated with the National League for Democracy to death, at what became known as the Depayin Massacre. Suu Kyi’s whereabouts weren’t known for three months following the assault, after which she was returned to house arrest. Ten years later the Bangkok Post reported that the then prime minister of Myanmar was claiming he mobilised his men to bring her to safety from the crowd.
Anti-government sentiment grew and protests flourished during 2007 as subsidies to the only legal fuel supplier in the country stopped and in 2008, just two days after storm Nagris killed tens of thousands across the country, the process of democratisation appeared to resume with a controversial constitutional referendum. The new constitution however, cemented the military’s long term leading political power in the nation. It enshrined the military’s constitutional rights of appointing 25% of parliamentary seats, occupying all ministerial posts related to security and gave significant veto powers. A vote to amend the constitution would need a majority of over 75% of parliament — resulting in an established separation between democratically elected government and all security and military power, key to maintaining military unaccountability.
The military allowed elections to take place in 2010, the first in two decades. However the tactics behind this decision were painfully apparent. The junta’s electoral law barred candidacy for those with criminal convictions while also stating that parties who refused to register would no longer be legally recognised. Suu Kyi and protest leaders from 1988 to 2010 were the core of the country’s democracy movement and were at one time or another among the nation’s estimated 2,100 political prisoners. The NLD boycotted the vote but survived as a party. It continued its vying with the government and in 2016 Suu Kyi won a triumphant 70% of parliamentary seats and became the nation’s State Councillor, the de facto prime minister.
Let the games on the world stage commence!
In 2017, one of the army chiefs General Min Aung Hlaing ramped up a crackdown on the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in the north of Myanmar. This crackdown resulted in the dislocation of 800,000 people into neighbouring Bangladesh, fleeing rape, murder and torture the survivors left smouldering wreckages of their livelihoods behind them. Domestically this justified the prolonged high military spending to win the civil war. This trap was navigated by Suu Kyi who refused to denounce the actions of her country’s military on the world stage. Whilst she was defending the military’s conduct at the International Court of Justice the army made their position perfectly clear.
“To make clear what was at stake, the Military mobilised troops around major cities in Myanmar while the State Councillor was speaking in The Hague. A wrong word — and the coup would have happened then.” — Prof Stefan Collignon 2021
Sanctions from the international community were swift, punishing Myanmar’s fragile economic development and tipped the balance of power by halting economic cooperation with Myanmar. They failed to acknowledge the internal power struggles plaguing the legislature of the nation-state. Instead of punishing those responsible for atrocities carried out across Myanmar they left a vacuum which has been filled by powers that look more kindly on undemocratic rule. So, the military has taken back control through the most recent coup that has seen Suu Kyi has once again placed under house arrest.
The people of Myanmar have repeatedly proven they want a continued transition to democracy. Should the transition continue it would prove to be a beacon of democratic hope in Southeast Asia where corruption is once again on the rise. In order for the transition to resume, harsh punishments must be targeted at those directly responsible whilst not alienating the people of Myanmar. Encouraging the next generation of grassroots democratic leaders to rise through targeted cooperation can help deliver democratic development but, it begs the question: How do nations justifiably support a people without benefiting the despots perched on top?
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” — Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear