Aung San Suu Kyi - an icon's first hours of freedom

I felt a sudden surge of emotion watching the images of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. I don’t know her, but I know how much she means to the vast majority of Burma’s people. 

I had walked the streets of Rangoon at a time when it had seemed unimaginable that there were brave people who sometimes took the risk of wearing her image on a t-shirt in public – even if it was for only a few moments. The people of Rangoon had seemed cowed, dispirited, minding their own business – the much-vaunted ‘discipline’ so beloved of the junta.

These were people for whom it was an act of great risk to whisper the pro-democracy sentiments that some of them confided in me. The ordinary Burmese citizen, it had seemed to me, wanted nothing more than to dissolve in the crowd, be faceless for fear of being singled out.

And yet on the evening of her release, what a different, jubilant crowd it was. Unafraid of being seen and of having their identities recorded by the government’s spies who would doubtless be within them. Aung San Suu Kyi inspires such daring, by her own resolve and grace under pressure. She is emphatic in her principled disagreement with injustice, but hers is a way of dialogue and non-violence. 

In the long years of her house arrest, there was much speculation about her losing touch with the outside world due to her isolation, speculation about her ability to lead. Some former supporters became detractors, criticizing her unbending stance on sanctions (which they claimed were hurting ordinary Burmese people), or just seeking political mileage of their own.

I met a few people who had known her and they had sometimes contradictory things to say, which was reassuring. Aung San Suu Kyi may be extraordinary but she is also human. 

A young man spoke of the time, when, as a member of the youth wing of her National League for Democracy (NLD), he spent time in her ancestral house, the site of her detention. His eyes lit up, when he recounted how thirsty she always was for knowledge and how she passed that thirst on to youngsters like himself through challenging conversations and sharing whatever resources (mainly books) that she had at her disposal.

Is it any wonder that so many of the crowd started chanting ‘Mother Suu’ when she appeared at the gates of her house on the eve of her release?

Others had different recollections of her. An exiled former politician of her party claimed she had a hot temper when crossed, and that she preferred working with men rather than women. 

But whatever anyone had to say, one thing was glaringly obvious – Aung San Suu Kyi had become an icon of freedom and hope for her people through her sacrifice and perseverance. And she had shown herself quick to adapt to specific shortcomings. The chief of these had been her recognition that even democratic politicians in Burma had been sidelining the country’s ethnic nationalities who had suffered the worst excesses of the military regime.

She swiftly embarked on a series of meetings with leaders from the ethnic nationalities, listening rather than dictating and winning their admiration. I have met many ethnic nationality activists who have personal histories of discrimination by members of the Burman majority, but who are unreserved in their admiration of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her image hangs on the wall. She has become part of their dreams, too.

As a foreign observer, I have often worried how far ahead the Burmese pro-democracy movement and its supporters look. Democracy is the big prize, but what of economic policy? There is little comment on this aspect, even from media who examine Burma matters on a daily basis. When the NLD won national elections overwhelmingly in 1990, results the generals swiftly annulled, their economic policy seemed a rather contradictory mix of opening up the market to foreign capital, coupled with aims to becoming a welfare state. What is the view today? 

In the short period following her release, Aung San Suu Kyi has struck exactly the right note. Claiming she needs to consult with and listen to the people first before making any bold decisions, reiterating her call for national reconciliation, and yet not falling short in her principles.

She must be keenly aware of the perception that her long containment might make some believe she is out of touch – and so her emphasis on consultation. She is the greatest threat to the generals, and so her call for national reconciliation bears within it the face-saving option of transition towards a more democratic future without any mention of punitive retribution.

It is likely that she is now in great danger herself, having survived one assassination attempt during a previous brief period of freedom. Getting her message right will be of utmost importance and so far she has been calm and consummate. Which is why, regardless of her future role, her release has brought such joy to the streets of Rangoon.

Lend support to Burma’s other political prisoners: Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

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