Aung San Suu Kyi and futility

Yesterday, the Guardian printed previously unseen pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, the one-time Burmese democracy leader, at various points both in Asia in her youth and in the UK as a married woman, all before she returned to Burma in 1988, initially to care for her mother but she ended up forming a political party, standing in the election in 1990 which was not honoured by the military. She has spent most of the intervening period under house arrest, where she remains today.

Most of the pictures are, for anyone who isn’t a big fan of Aung San Suu Kyi, uninteresting family snaps. The accompanying commentary makes much of banal details, such as that less than ten years after one picture was taken, ASSK would be back in Burma under house arrest, etc. Why does that matter? I guess they had some column inches to burn. But the enthusiasm goes high up in the British political establishment; in 2007, Gordon Brown dedicated a chapter of his book, Courage: Eight Portraits, to her, and one of his last two letters as Prime Minister was to her (the other was to Nelson Mandela).

But I’ve never quite got why the western liberal establishment is so in love with her, and still thinks she has some kind of divine right to be the leader of Burma nearly twenty years after winning an election. In case anyone’s forgotten, we’re on our fourth Prime Minister here in the UK since then. Even if her election had been honoured and Burma was now a democracy, her mandate will have lapsed long ago. Her position is based on being the daughter of an early general in the Burmese army, yet she is a pacifist and her “resistance” has mostly consisted of pottering round her home since 1990. Having never actually been a political leader, she has had no opportunity to get her hands dirty, yet the record of political daughters and wives in south and south-east Asia is hardly encouraging.

However, it doesn’t take nearly as much courage to carry out “passive resistance” when you know you enjoy special privilege as the daughter of a revered dead general as when you are just an ordinary person. She has relied heavily on her moral authority and the fact that she has family and friends in the west. She has an escape route, should she choose to use it, although this would entail some loss of face; perhaps this counts for more in that culture than it does here. Still, her moral authority has got her, her party and the cause of Burmese democracy absolutely nowhere. If anything, the junta has become more entrenched and uses the country as essentially a pool of slave labour.

Meanwhile, her family in the UK has had to get on without her. At the time of her return in 1988, her younger son Kim was only 11. Her husband did not see her after 1995 and died of cancer, without her by his side, in 1997. According to the Guardian’s commentary:

It was her destiny, she said, and her family accepted it: before her marriage to Michael Aris, she told him: “I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them.”

I wonder if her then unborn children were ever consulted about this pact. They may support her or be proud of her now, but the fact remains that she took off when her younger son was very much still a child. I was personally sent away from home at roughly the same age (for different reasons) and I do remember that it was very painful, admittedly not just because of the separation but because the school I was sent to was bad. And all for what? Her campaign is a good illustration of the futility of “passive” or “non-violent” resistance, because some enemies can only be fought the other way. It is no coincidence that some people like to preach about Gandhian resistance to those who are oppressed, but who they don’t actually want to see freed.

The Burmese junta will not give way unless it is overthrown from within or from without; it has no motivation to do so. The West will not intervene and there is a lot of business being done with them. Even Amnesty International, back in the early 1990s, as part of a full-page advert in the Guardian in which they described the systematic and public rape of women and young girls, said that there was nothing they could do as the junta did not care what outsiders thought of them. Aung San Suu Kyi is their ideal opponent, someone who will sit there and do nothing, relying on the goodwill of outsiders who will themselves do nothing.

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