You are on page 1of 15

Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds

Class: Women and Peacemaking (CRS-3242)


Instructor: Dr Anna Snyder
By Carsten Kaefert (3012875)

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds Page 1/15
Table of Contents
Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds..............................................................................................1
Abstract.......................................................................................................................................3
Born to Be an Activist.................................................................................................................3
Leading an Uprise – The 1988 Revolts.......................................................................................5
In Her Own Words......................................................................................................................6
Freedom from Fear.................................................................................................................6
The Need for Solidarity among Ethnic Groups......................................................................8
A Fishy Episode......................................................................................................................8
A Friend in Need....................................................................................................................9
Speech in Acceptance of the Nobel Piece Prize...................................................................10
Ineffective Measures from the West..........................................................................................10
Ineffective Sanctions............................................................................................................11
Protection from Neighbors and Partners..............................................................................13
Bibliography..............................................................................................................................15

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→Page 2/15
Abstract
This paper deals with the democracy movement in Burma, namely the National League for

Democracy (NLD) and its leader, Nobel peace prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Starting

with a brief introduction into her biography and the Burmese history, it focuses especially on her

outreach to the outwards world and its effects. It draws on her writings and their reception

especially in the west and illustrates that while gaining much attention in western media,

concrete steps to change the situation in Burma have not been effective. Although economic

sanctions have been but in place, the human rights situation in the country remains devastating.

Furthermore, foreign investment in the formerly isolated country has become one of the main

pillars for the military junta's reign, while the sanctions primarily hit the already poor population.

Born to Be an Activist
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (Daw being a honorary title which is often translated as lady)

carries the political leader already in her name: Aung San, her father, is still today seen as

Burma's most important national hero, as the father of the independent Burma. 1 He led the armed

struggle against colonial Britain and fascist Japan.2 Sadly, also tragedy lies within this name:

Aung San was assassinated by a political rival in 1947. Daw Suu Kyi, born on 19 June 1945, was

just two years old when she lost her father.3

Despite the obviously dim memory of him, her father always was an inspiration to Daw

Suu Kyi. In one of her most famous writings, Freedom from Fear, she compares him to Gandhi:

1 Cf. Michael Aris, “Introduction,” in Freedom from Fear and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 1991), xvi.
2 Cf. ibid.
3 Cf. ibid.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→Born to Be an Activist Page 3/15
The words used by Jawaharlal Nehru to describe Mahatma Gandhi could well be
applied to Aung San: 'The essence of his teaching was fearlessness and truth, and
action allied to these, always keeping the welfare of the masses in view.'
Gandhi, that great apostle of non-violence, and Aung San, the founder of a national
army, were very different personalities, but as there is an inevitable sameness about
the challenges of authotarian rule anywhere at any time, so there is a similarity in the
intrinsic qualities of those who rise up to meet the challenge.4

Further quoting Nehru, she described this quality as “abhaya, fearlessness, not mere bodily

courage but absence of fear from the mind.”5 The same kind of fearlessness should become her

trademark in the struggle for freedom in Burma.

Both traits, the politic as well as the tragic, influenced her life at all times: She studied

politics, philosophy and economics in Oxford before going to New York for post-graduate

studies. There she postpones her studies to work for the United Nations as an Assistant Secretary,

further following her path into politics.6 As her husband Michael Aris, whom she met in Oxford,

stated, she lived in a state of readiness to return to Burma and strive for freedom, if her people

needs her.7

This call should once more intertwine the politic with tragedy. In reverse to her father's

fate, on whom politics spilled tragedy, she should be drawn back into the political arena by the

the tragedy of her mother suffering a stroke in Burma in 1988.8

4 Aung San Suu Kyi, “Freedom from Fear,” in Freedom from Fear and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 1991),
183-184.
5 Ibid.
6 Cf. Nobel Foundation, “Aung San Suu Kyi – Biography,” Nobelprize.org,
http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1991/kyi-bio.html.
7 Cf. Aris, Introduction... xviii.
8 Cf. ibid.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→Born to Be an Activist Page 4/15
Leading an Uprise – The 1988 Revolts
Upon getting notice of her mothers ailment, Daw Suu Kyi instantly returned to Burma to

care for her. Although it was rather coincidental that this trip should mean the beginning of her

campaign for democracy within Burma, she always was prepared on standby for her people.

Towards her husband she liked to state “that if her people ever needed her, she would not fail

them.”9 This moment should come sooner than expected: On 23 July 1988 Ne Win, who had

ruled over the country for the preceding decades, resigned and August 8 of the same year, a tidal

wave of protests for democracy swept across Burma. Daw Suu Kyi's house immediately became

a center for political activity.10 As early as August 26 she spoke publicly to her people for the first

time in front of “a colossal rally at the Shwedagon pagoda.”11 After the public unrest had forced

three heads of government out of office in rapid succession, military officers loyal to Ne Win

staged a coup and took over power on September 18. Their State Law and Order Restoration

Council (SLORC) promised free elections – whilst shooting down demonstrators and turning

rallies into bloodshed.12 Shortly afterwards, Daw Suu Kyi and close associates formed their

party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).13 Daw Suu Kyi and her associates spend the

better part of 1989 touring the country, promoting their party – thus uniting a previousely

spontaneous, scattered revolt, to which she introduced her idea of non-violent struggle.14

In July of that year, Daw Suu Kyi was put under house arrest after trying to organize

another rally (which she called due to the prospect of further bloodshed). 15 After further

9 Aris, Introduction... xvii.


10 Cf. ibid. xviii.
11 Ibid.
12 Cf. ibid. xix
13 Cf. ibid.
14 Cf. ibid. xx-xxi.
15 Cf. ibid.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→Leading an Uprise – The 1988 Revolts Page 5/15
campaining from her house, elections came in May 1990 – with very favorable results: NLD

accumulated more than 60 per cent of the popular vote in a landslide victory, amassing over 80

per cent of the seats in parliament.16 SLORC never honored the elections results, but instead

jailed most of the NLD members elected into parliament.

Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest and virtual incommunicado most of the

time since. This has brought further tragedy over her, as her husband died in 1999 without a

chance for the couple to meet again after they saw each other for the last time on Christmas

1989.17

Despite having been subject to some criticism,18 it has been found that “Only Aung San

Suu Kyi is capable of forging a working coalition between civilians and the military and leading

Burma a sure path to economic and political modernization.”19

In Her Own Words


During all the time of her relentless struggle as a political leader, Daw Suu Kyi has been an

avid writer as well. She explained the situation in her country to its people and the world,

outlined her principles, argued for her cause and worked towards summing up support. Some

exemplary works will be discussed in detail in the following chapters.

Freedom from Fear

It is not power that corrupts people 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. Most
Burmese are familiar with the four a-gati, the four kinds of corruption[...] perhaps the
16 Cf. ibid. xxiv.
17 Cf. ibid.
18 Cf. Kyaw Yin Hlaing, “Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar: A Review of the Lady’s Biographies,” Contemporary
Southeast Asia 29, no. 2. (2007): 366-367.
19 Garry Woodward, “Burmas Quest for Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 3, no. 1, 1992: 4.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→In Her Own Words Page 6/15
worst of the four is bhaya-gati, for not only does bhaya, fear, stifle and slowly destroy
all sense of right and wrong, it so often lies at the root of the other three kinds of
corruption.20

Freedom from fear is perhaps Daw Suu Kyi's most important writing, as it lays out her

philosophy of engagement in political change. It was released in reaction to the awarding of the

Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Daw Suu Kyi by the European Parliament and

subsequently reprinted in major news outlets all around the world. 21 It draws upon former US

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedom catchphrase, which he established in his 1941

State of the Union Address.22 She briefly describes the nature of the 1988 protests and deviates

from the usual view of them being a result of economic hardship. They were rather targeting “the

humiliation of a way of life disfigured by corruption and fear.”23 The strategy she suggests – and

adopts herself – against the atrocity in her home country is one of fearlessness, as shown in the

aforementioned description of her father. Being aware that fearlessness in the face of a regime as

violent as the Burmese is a high, perhaps unachievable demand, she asks for “courage that comes

from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions.”24 She describes a way there

that is defined by strict adherence of one's own ethic standards and continuous self-

improvement.25 This illustrates the Gandhian nature of her struggle and her deep Buddhist

beliefs, which makes this writing so highly valuable to understand her struggle.

20 Suu Kyi, Freedom... 180.


21 Cf. ibid.
22 Cf. Kanbawza Win, A Burmese Perspective: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel Laureate (Bangkok: CPDSK
Publications, 1992), 60.
23 Suu Kyi, Freedom... 181.
24 Ibid. 184.
25 Cf. ibid. 184-185.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→In Her Own Words Page 7/15
The Need for Solidarity among Ethnic Groups

Children's minds are like a clean slate. That's why we have a great reponsibility in
raising them. We must not teach them things that will divide them because of linguistic
or ethnic differences; we must teach them so that they understand the idea of the
Union. In the Kachin State, for instance, we have Jingpaw, Lisu, Shans, Burmans and
other peoples. For all of them to live together in harmony we must teach our children
from earliest childhood the concept of national unity, of nationhood.26

This excerpt from a speech Daw Aung San Suu Kyi delivered at a pagoda in 1989

beautifully illustrates other key features of her struggle. First of all obviously it is a call for

understanding among Burma's various peoples. But it is much more than that: In it's context it

illustrates her attitude towards those in power and responsible for the atrocities in Burma: Instead

of hating them she rather seems to pity them, as they are merely conditioned by their

upbringing.27 It also illustrates her struggle to improve the lives of her fellow Burmese – and be it

just by giving educational advise. This choice also shows, perhaps most impressive, her

conviction to her cause and her preparedness for a long battle: If it cannot be made during her

time, she at least wants following generations to have the best chances.

A Fishy Episode

We would listen to the chanting of protective sutras and pay our respects to our elders.
But the authorities had other plans.
On New Year's Day at about 11.30 in the morning, the street in front of my house was
blocked of with barbed-wire barricades. Nobody was allowed to come in or go out
except members of the security forces and numbers of awkward-looking men in
civilian clothes, each with a handkerchief tied around on wrist. We discovered later
that those were members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association
(USDA). They had been collected from various townships and told to beat up those
members of the NLD who came in through the barricades.28
26 Cf. ibid. 227.
27 Cf. ibid.
28 Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters from Burma (London: Penguin 1997), 108.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→In Her Own Words Page 8/15
Among Daw Suu Kyi's writings are many accounts of the harassment she and her fellow

activists face, although probably by far less than there are incidents of harassment. As disturbing

as these accounts are, the way Daw Suu Kyi and the NLD deal with them overcomes it in

impressiveness: In this case they opted not to directly confront the regime and be drawn into

violence once more. Instead, they held the New Year's Day ceremony that the junta tried to

suppress here, just outside the barricades. In Daw Suu Kyi's account, “the NLD members took a

firm, disciplined stand”29 - as they do so often.

A Friend in Need

During the hectic days of late May and early June, when a series of critical political
events were triggered off by the arrests of the NLD members elcted to parliament, a
stream of foreign correspondents came to find out how we were coping with the
situation. One of them commented on the fact that we did not appear to be unhappy. 'U
Tin U is smilingbroadly and U Kyi Maung is cracking jokes,' he said. 'Why are you not
in a state of distress? Isn't the situation rather grim?' I suppose some would have seen
the situation as grim, but to us, it was just another challenge; and the knowledge that
we were facing it together with proven friends was simple reason for good cheer.30

The amount of distress political struggle under and against a brutal regime puts upon

people can hardly be grasped by people not experiencing it. It makes big, abstract, even epic

concepts become very real. In Daw Suu Kyi's words: “Once poetic concepts such as villainy and

honour, cowardice and heroism, become common currency, the stuff of epics is lived through

from day to day.”31

29 Ibid. 109.
30 Ibid. 132.
31 Ibid. 131.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→In Her Own Words Page 9/15
Speech in Acceptance of the Nobel Piece Prize

Although my mother is often described as a political dissident who strives by peaceful


means for democratic change, we should remember that her quest is basically
spiritual. As she has said, “the quintessential revolution is that of the spirit,” and she
has written of the “essential spiritual aims” of the struggle. The realization of that
depends solely on human responsibility. At the root of that responsibility lies and I
quote “the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, and the will to follow that path
if not to the end, at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitation...”32

Although not authored by Daw Suu Kyi, the speech in acceptance of the 1991 Nobel Piece

Prize by her son Myint San Aung sheds some interesting light on her work. Again, the huge

influence of her Buddhist beliefs on the struggle are restated, as are the basic principles that

guide her: Morality, ethics and self-improvement. Her selflessness is also underlined by the fact

that he had to talk in behalf of her: She could have left her country to accept this prize, which is

among the world's most important. Just that this would have spelt an end to her struggle, as she

would not have been able to return home. Instead of accepting the prize herself and making

herself a comfortable life with the prize's noteworthy purse, reunited with her family, she opted

to stay in house arrest, under permanent peril.

Ineffective Measures from the West


Despite all efforts from within Burma to gather support for the National League for

Democracy's efforts, international help has been sketchy at best. Economic sanctions have played

a central part in the efforts to put pressure on the junta, but these have been met with criticism for

an array of reasons. They have proved ineffective and even destructive.

32 Myint San Aung, as quoted in: Win, A Burmese... 18-19.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→Ineffective Measures from the West Page 10/15
Ineffective Sanctions

Economic sanctions have been toted as effective means to achieve democratic change in a

country mainly based upon role in ending Apartheid in South Africa. However, the situation in

Burma is vastly different. For economic sanctions to be effective, Rarick lists a set of

prerequisites:

(1) modest policy change is sought,


(2) both trade and financial sanctions are imposed,
(3) the receiving country does not get support from a third party,
(4) the sender country’s economy is much larger than the receiving country,
international co-operation exists in imposing sanctions and
(6) the receiving country is economically and politically weak33

As stated by Rarick (and is particularly obvious), “Only about half of the needed

conditions are present in the case of Myanmar.”34 To be exact, the sought policy change is far

from modest, trade and financial sanctions are not imposed by the same actors, Burma gets

plenty of support from third parties and thus the international cooperation is lacking.

The scope of the aspired political change is discussed above, less so is the uneven structure

of the sanctions against the country. The by far strictest policy is implemented by the United

States of America through the Foreign Operations Appropriation Act of 1997 and the Burmese

Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003. The former bans new American investment in the country,

33 Charles A. Rarick, “Destroying a Country in Order to Save It: The Folly of Economic Sanctions Against
Myanmar,” Economic Affairs 26, no. 2 (2006): 62.
34 Ibid.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→Ineffective Measures from the West Page 11/15
the latter prohibits financial services towards it.35 Weaker sanctions are in place in Europe, with

the EU only freezing government officials financial assets and issuing travel bans, although some

member states have stricter policies.36 With other countries such as Australia and Japan just

pulling out economic aid37 and others supporting the junta (see below), it is obvious that

international cooperation is virtually non-existent in the field of sanctions. Given the huge role

money laundering and narcotics production and trafficking play in keeping the junta

economically afloat,38 even the weakness of the economy or rather susceptibility to sanctions can

questioned – despite the population's devastating poverty. Furthermore, Rarick doubts that

economic sanctions against a despotic government like the Burmese junta can at all be

effective.39 Another concern of his is the question of ethics: Sanctions, he writes, “cause suffering

and, in some cases, even death, in an attempt to bring about political change.”40 He argues that

thus “it is time to reconsider this ineffective, inhumane and unethical form of foreign policy.”41

Whilst Rarick's approach has some merit to it, it fails to address some of Burma's

peculiarities, especially in the field of ethics. The junta tends to make excessive use of forced

labor,42 which taints the promise of greater wealth among the people from international

investment. Accordingly, Ms. Suu Kyi also argues against investment in Burma. In an interview

about German company's direct investment in Burma she stated: “I am not surprised that certain

economic circles do not care about anything but their profits. These German companies play into

35 Cf. ibid. 61.


36 Cf. ibid.
37 Cf. ibid.
38 Cf. CIA World Factbook, s.v. “Burma”.
39 Cf. Rarick, Destroying... 61.
40 Ibid. 62.
41 Ibid. 63.
42 M. Busse, S. Braun, “Trade and Investment Effects of Forced Labour: An Empirical Assessment,” International
Labour Review 142, no.1 (2003): 52.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→Ineffective Measures from the West Page 12/15
the junta's hands.”43 She explicitly denied Rarick's notion of foreign investment improving the

local situation by stating that “they do not contribute to change if money only goes into the

wallets of people who are anyways well off and are not willing to share their power[...] the

people they [the companies] have to deal with, are a political factor: They demand all the power

for themselves.”44

It is painfully obvious that the western efforts to disciplin the Burmese junta are painfully

ineffective. But be they botched or not, at least there are efforts from these countries. Others are

in contrast very supportive of the regime.

Protection from Neighbors and Partners

Sanctions against Burma are further rendered ineffective by the support it receives from its

partners and neighbors. The country enjoys quite powerful protection from countries such as

China45 and India46 and recently Russia.47 With China and Russia it has two veto powers in the

United Nations Security Council on its side, which already proved useful for the junta: A

resolution condemning grave human rights abuse was vetoed by the two country's

representatives in 2007.48 The three countries also supply Burma with weapons, military

technology and training.49 This great inflow of modern weaponry has supported a massive

expansion of the Burmese armed forces. They “have more than doubled in size and are now the

second largest in Southeast Asia. […] The Tatmadaw […] has been transformed from a small,
43 “In die Hände der Junta,” Der Spiegel, January 13, 1997, 17.
44 Ibid.
45 Cf. Andrew Selth, “Burma and Superpower Rivalries in the Asia-Pacific,” Naval War College Review 55, no. 2
(2002): 52.
46 Cf. ibid. 53.
47 Cf. Poon Kim Shee, “The Political Economy of China-Myanmar Relations: Strategic and Economic
Dimensions,” Ritsumeikan Annual Review of International Studies 1 (2002): 39.
48 Cf. Colum Lynch, “Russia, China Veto Resolution on Burma,” Washington Post, January 13, 2007.
49 Cf. Selth, Burma... 52-53 and Poon Kim Shee, The Political... 39.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→Ineffective Measures from the West Page 13/15
weak counterinsurgency force barely able to maintain internal security into a very large, much

more powerful defense force.”50 The consequences this has for the prospect of social change

within the country are obvious.

It is obvious that the Western democracies have not much room for maneuver to directly

influence the Burmese junta towards democratization. But it also has been made clear that it is

uncertain whether they would use it if they had – the West has so far, despite all the rhetorics,

been unable to take a common stance on the issue.

50 Cf. Selth, Burma... 56.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→Ineffective Measures from the West Page 14/15
Bibliography
–M. Busse, S. Braun, “Trade and Investment Effects of Forced Labour: An Empirical

Assessment,” International Labour Review 142, no.1 (2003).

–Kyaw Yin Hlaing, “Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar: A Review of the Lady’s

Biographies,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 29, no. 2. (2007).

–Charles A. Rarick, “Destroying a Country in Order to Save It: The Folly of Economic

Sanctions Against Myanmar,” Economic Affairs 26, no. 2 (2006).

–Poon Kim Shee, “The Political Economy of China-Myanmar Relations: Strategic and

Economic Dimensions,” Ritsumeikan Annual Review of International Studies 1 (2002).

–Aung San Suu Kyi, “Freedom from Fear,” (London: Penguin, 1991).

–Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters from Burma (London: Penguin 1997).

–Kanbawza Win, A Burmese Perspective: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel Laureate

(Bangkok: CPDSK Publications, 1992).

–Garry Woodward, “Burmas Quest for Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 3, no. 1, 1992.

Carsten Kaefert: Aung San Suu Kyi: Against All Odds→Bibliography Page 15/15