I talked with a hero: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
MANILA, Philippines – If you ask whether we shall achieve democracy, whether there will be general elections, here is what I shall say: Don’t think about whether or not these things will happen. Just continue to do what you believe is right. Later on the fruits of what you do will become apparent on their own. One’s responsibility is to do the right thing.”
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spoke these words in 1988 in a speech on “The Role of the Citizen in the Struggle for Democracy.”
More than two decades later, she has become a living embodiment of the sentiments she expressed on that day, the National Day of Burma, Dec. 3.
In that year, she made an appeal to all the ambassadors accredited to Burma to address the issue of human rights, pointing out the “indiscriminate killing in recent weeks of unarmed demonstrators, including school children, students and Buddhist monks.” She wrote that she would be “most grateful if you would therefore kindly forward this appeal to your Foreign Minister on my behalf.”
Last December I received a gift from the Burmese patriot and national leader herself. It was a signed copy of the revised edition of her book, Freedom From Fear, which was a compilation of her writings and speeches as well as interviews and appreciations from various people including Ma Than E, who served as a senior staff member of the United Nations Secretariat and whom Aung San Suu Kyi has fondly referred to as her “emergency aunt.”
In his foreword to the book, Václac Havel writes that, “She has refused to be bribed into silence by permanent exile. Under house arrest, she has lived in truth. She is an outstanding example of the power of the powerless.”
In the signed copy of her book, she wrote:
Secretary Alberto G. Romulo,
I look forward to many more meetings with you.
With best regards,
Aung San Suu Kyi,
6 December ‘10
Her words reminded me of our meeting in 1997. In my diary entry on that memorable occasion, I wrote my impressions, describing her as “a petite, handsome, very articulate lady, exuding a spiritual strength and grace…not unlike our own beloved Cory Aquino.” (Indeed, these two great ladies share many similarities, from the tragic circumstances that brought them into the spotlight along with the salient virtues of their leadership, always first by example, their humility, their courage and their determination.)
In 1997 I had the rare opportunity to meet her.
In my notes, I had written that I arrived ahead of the Burmese leader at our Ambassador’s residence.
While we were in the living room, we heard a car entering through the gate. From an old white Toyota car alighted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi accompanied by Mr. Aung Schwe, the chairman of their party, the National League for Democracy. I also jotted down that we had a simple lunch of “soup, mixed vegetable and a chicken dish as well as dessert, and coffee and tea.”
When we first met, I was still a senator. Our meeting and conversation led me to deliver a privilege speech in the Senate, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Burmese independence. I spoke of what we had discussed during that lunch as well as issuing a call to the Asean and the international community to address her safety and security, the restoration of her freedoms, the convening of the Burmese National Assembly and free elections to be held thence. I compared her struggle to that of Ninoy Aquino’s under the Marcos regime her confinement and Ninoy’s incarceration, the attempts on her life and Ninoy’s assassination, the sufferings of her people and the oppression of our people.
Unlike our own country’s recent elections that gave President Benigno Aquino III an overwhelming and popular mandate by the Filipino people (just as his mother, Cory, had in 1986), the elections in Aung San Suu Kyi’s homeland, now called Myanmar, were rigged with 80 percent of those “elected” handpicked by the Junta’s leaders.
In 2000, two years after my speech in the Senate, she was again placed under house arrest and was detained several times thereafter, for charges that readers of Franz Kafka are too familiar with.
As Secretary of Foreign Affairs, in various fora, I have consistently and repeatedly decried her continued detention and deprivation.
In 2007, in the United Nations Security Council, the Philippines called for “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be immediately released without restrictions and that all parties, including (her party) the National League for Democracy, be part of the democratization and constitutional process in Myanmar.”
In 2009, we also expressed deep concern and outrage over the filing of trumped-up charges and her transfer to Insein prison. In the latter, it was reported then that there were issues regarding her health. With the lack of access of media to report and check on her condition, the prospects seemed bleak.
During these times, I would again recall her words during our meeting. Even after all she had personally been through (which, among other things, prevented her from seeing her husband and children), Aung San Suu Kyi was empathetic and earnest in her willingness to cooperate and work with the junta even if they had been the instrument of oppression and persecution. This, she said, was for the nation’s interest and well-being, not for any personal glory or political vendetta.
About the future role of the army, she spoke frankly and told us that she feels that it should be part of any Burmese administration. To reiterate, she recalled her father, General Aung Sun, who led the struggle for Burmese independence from the British Empirethe first country to successfully do soas the father of the Burmese Army. She pointed out that the hardest hit by the economic situation were members of the armed forces themselves. “Because the Father of the Burmese Army is my father, I have a special affinity to the soldiers.”
What struck me then was that there was no hint of bitterness in her, but a genuine yearning to reconcile the differences of her countrymen. She wanted peace.
The words of our own Ninoy Aquino in the statement he had prepared to deliver after returning from exile in 1983, but which was never uttered, came to mind:
“I seek no confrontation. I only pray and will strive for a genuine national reconciliation founded on justice,” wrote Ninoy.
In his remarks, Ninoy also quoted Ghandi who said the “willing sacrifice of the innocent is the most powerful answer to insolent tyranny that has yet been conceived by God and man.”
Would it take a fate like Ninoy’s to finally achieve democracy in Burma?
I prayed then and continue to do so now that it does not.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s demeanor, hopeful but of steeled determination, as we spoke, was remarkable then as it is now as she starts once again to work towards democracy and freedom for her people. Her recent appearances and speeches have only demonstrated that she is as committed as ever to pursuing her goals through peaceful and non-violent means. Her presence is assuring and all the more vital now as we watch the conflicts that continue to erupt around the world, especially in the Middle East.
Her example shows that there are other ways of dealing with tyranny than violencesomething we Filipinos proved to the world in 1986, perhaps our greatest contribution to the history of democracy. The events of 1986 remain until now an inspiration around the world.
As we prepare to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the EDSA People Power revolution, let us also pray that the Burmese people finally achieve the democracy they so rightfully deserve.
When that day comes, and we hope soon, it would be my great privilege to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi againthis time as the leader of a free people.