Sunday, March 24, 2013

Burma, Myanmar in Her Eyes: ‘Freedom From Fear’

by Bill Doughty

During Women’s History Month, in the weeks leading up to the Burmese New Year, and in light of new incidents of ethnic violence in that beautiful but torn country, it is timely to read the words of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a pivotal figure, philosopher and heroic leader in Burma (now also known as Myanmar) who calls for “a genuine respect for freedom, peace and justice.”

Aung San (right) and family in 1947, with Suu Kyi is in front.
She is the daughter of Aung San, a former leader of the country’s independence movement against British colonialism.  Aung San first aligned with the Japanese just prior to WWII until he saw the fascism of Imperial Japan’s military and sided with the Allies.  He was assassinated by a rival in 1947 on the eve of the country’s independence but is remembered today as the father of modern Burma.  

Aung San’s daughter, an Oxford-educated winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, continued her father’s push to democratic rule and freedom but was arrested, separated from her family and kept under house arrest for 15 of 21 years between 1989 and 2010.  Her selfless commitment, backed by the free world, led to elections and the beginning of a transition from military junta control to civilian government rule. Today, Aung San Suu Kyii  chairs Myanmar’s leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy.

“Freedom From Fear” was first published in 1991 and reissued in 1995, edited by Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband, Dr. Michael Aris.  It is presented in three parts.

Part I, “The Inheritance,” focuses on her early writing, including a biography of her father and review of literature in the context of religion and politics.  The chapter “My Country and People” is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the ethnic diversity of Burma.  It provides the geography, history and sociology needed to explain the differences of Mon-Khmers, Tibeto-Burmans and Thai-Shans -- Chins, Kachins, Krens, Kayahs, Mons, Arakanese (Rakhines) and Shans; how these people were impacted by Indian, Chinese, Portuguese and British culture; and how the country has been influenced by religions such as natural spirit worship, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and others.

Although she doesn’t mention the immigrant ethnic Rohingya Muslims in her 1991 book, Aung San Suu Kyi recently called ethnic violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western and central Burma “a huge international tragedy.” She restated her desire to promote reconciliation after 200 people were killed and 100,000 were displaced from their homes in 2012.  This weekend, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in the Meikhtila region after ethnic/religious clashes killed at least 20 people.

Aung San Suu Kyi challenges people to rise above their superstitions, prejudices and, most of all, fears.

Part II, “The Struggle,” shows a chronological sequence of the movement toward democracy.

“The quest for democracy in Burma is the struggle of a people to live whole, meaningful lives as free and equal members of the world community.  It is part of the unceasing human endeavour to prove that the spirit of man can transcend the flaws of his own nature.”

Aung San Suu Kyi outlines her vision, objectives and strategy. The book’s namesake chapter, “Freedom from Fear,” calls for courage in the face of oppression:

“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. Most Burmese are familiar with the four a-gati, the four kinds of corruption. Chanda-gati, corruption induced by desire, is deviation from the right path in pursuit of bribes or for the sake of those one loves. Dosa-gati is taking the wrong path to spite those against whom one bears ill will, and moha-gati is aberration due to ignorance. But perhaps the 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 ... It would be difficult to dispel ignorance unless there is freedom to pursue the truth unfettered by fear.”

In a message that continues to resonate for developing free nations, Aung San Suu Kyi discusses how Germany and Japan became strong democratic states after the Second World War.  In the chapter, “The Need for Solidarity Among Ethnic Groups,” she writes, “We must all work together if we are to live together in unity and harmony.

Part III, “Appreciations,” offers reminiscences, observations and assessments by others.  

The 1995 edition, which includes forewards by Václav Havel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, concludes with “The Spirit of Reconciliation,” Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement in 1995 after nearly six years of detention.  She writes, “I have always believed that the future stability and happiness of our nation depends entirely on the readiness of all parties to work towards reconciliation.”

In another book, 1996’s “Letters from Burma,” Aung San Suu Kyi waxes philosophically on life in her homeland.

Many of her letter-essays in “Letters from Burma,” which were published in Japan’s Mainichi Shinbun, culminate in moral reflections, such as this powerful observation:

“Unity in diversity has to be the principle of those who genuinely wish to build our country into a strong nation that allows a variety of races, languages, beliefs and cultures to flourish in peaceful and happy co-existence.  Only a government that tolerates opinions and attitudes different from its own will be able to create an environment where peoples of diverse traditions and aspirations can breathe freely in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has a strong and inspiring voice, in many ways like that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., not only for women and men in her country but for people everywhere.

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