Starweek Magazine

Aung San Suu Kyi: Leader-in-waiting

- Alberto G. Romulo -

Editor’s note: This article is based on a privilege speech delivered by the author, then a senator, on Feb. 6, 1998. Aung San Suu Kyi was finally set free by Burma’s military junta on Nov. 13, 2010.

MANILA, Philippines - In Rangoon, on Oct. 17 last year I had the rare opportunity and privilege to have had lunch with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese patriot and national leader.

I arrived ahead of the Burmese leader at our Ambassador’s residence. While we were in the living room of our Ambassador Brady, we heard a car entering through the gate. From a white Toyota car alighted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi accompanied by Mr. Aung Schwe, the chairman of their party, the National League for Democracy. They were greeted by Ambassador Brady on the doorstep of the house.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a petite, handsome, very articulate lady, who exudes spiritual strength and grace.

Ambassador Brady served us a simple lunch: soup, mixed vegetable and chicken dish. I believe there was also dessert, as well as coffee and tea.

In 1948, Burma was the first country to leave the British Empire – ahead of India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Ceylon.

Fifty years ago, as Burma prepared for its independence, “Rangoon was glittering with thousands of gaudy-oriental lanterns and fairy lights while public buildings were being floodlit at night by red, green, and blue lights. As the official hour of Burma’s independence approached, ceremonial drums beat out as the sound of the last drum faded away, Burma ceased to be a part of the British Empire.”

What an auspicious beginning for Burma.

Leading the independence movement was General Aung Sun. The father of Suu Kyi, Gen. Aung Sun, it is said, was a man who deeply loved his country and who fought for a free and independent Burma.

Today, as Burma celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence, let us count the countries which are independent and whose people enjoy freedom.

HOME AND PRISON: Suu Kyi spent most of the last 20 years in their family’s lakeside house in Rangoon (Yangon).

Worldwide, at least 81 countries are free with the people’s basic liberties and political rights respected and protected; 57 countries may be considered partly free while in 53 countries, basic rights and civil liberties are denied and suppressed. One of these 53 countries is Burma or Myanmar, as renamed by the SLORC.

Since 1948, when Burma gained its independence, a chronology of the Burmese people’s struggle for freedom and democracy is summarized:

In 1962, Gen. Ne Win became chairman of the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) and thus began his dictatorship which was to last for 26 years.

In March 1988, Suu Kyi returned to Burma to attend to her ailing mother while a student protest broke out in Rangoon.

On July 23, 1988, Gen. Ne Win finally stepped down, ending his 26 year rule of Burma.

On Aug. 8, 1988, the famous 8-8-88 mass uprising started in Rangoon, now called Yangon, and spread to the entire country, drawing millions of people to protest against BSPPs tyrannical government. The ensuing military crackdown killed thousands of Burmese.

On Aug. 26, 1988, Suu Kyi addressed half-a-million mass rally in front of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon and called for a democratic government.

On Sept. 18, 1988, the military reestablished its power under the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the notorious SLORC.

Six days later, on Sept. 24, 1988, the National League for Democracy was formed with Suu Kyi as Secretary General.

On April 5, 1989, Suu Kyi confronted an army unit and was almost assassinated if not for the intervention of an army major.

On June 21, 1989, Suu Kyi attended the memorial service for the dissidents of 1988.

On July 20, 1989, Suu Kyi was finally placed under house arrest, under martial law that allows for detention without charge or trial for three years. She went on hunger strike to protect the students taken from her house to the military intelligence interrogation center. She is recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

On May 27, 1990, elections for the National Assembly was held. Despite Suu Kyi’s continuing detention, her party the National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the general elections. The National League for Democracy captured 82 percent of the seats.The SLORC, however, refused to recognize the results of the election and did not allow the convening of the National Assembly.

If all these events have a familiar ring, it is to remind us all that not too long ago our people also experienced the same trials as the Burmese people.

While Ninoy Aquino was imprisoned for almost eight years, Suu Kyi was deprived of her liberty under house arrest for six years and continues to be under surveillance with the military cordoning off her lakeside home.

While Ninoy Aquino was assassinated as he alighted from his plane at the international airport, Suu Kyi almost met a similar fate on several occasions.

While inspired by Ninoy’s assassination, the Filipino people drove the tyrants out of the country, the Burmese people continue to chafe under the iron fist of the SLORC, now renamed SPDC.

While under house arrest, Suu Kyi received international recognition and awards – in 1990, the RAFTO Human Rights Prize; in 1991 the Sakharov Prize and on Oct. 24, 1991, the Nobel Peace Prize – all awarded to her in absentia because of her vow not to leave Burma until the Burmese regained their freedom.

In 1994, the military junta used another excuse to continue the detention of Suu Kyi. Under the SLORC law, an extra year can be added by a three-member committee. Is this not reminiscent of the decrees and instructions during the Marcos regime to detain members of the opposition?

Finally, on July 10, 1995, the SLORC released Suu Kyi from house arrest.

In our meeting with Suu Kyi, she was emphatic that she would cooperate and work with the SLORC even if the SLORC had been the instrument of oppression and persecution. In cooperating and working with the SLORC, Suu Kyi laid down 4 conditions:

First, there must be openness in their dealings. In other words, she did not want deals under the table or in secrecy; any dealing should be out in the open with the people fully informed.

Second, there must be mutual respect – in their talks, she will not interfere in the choice of the SLORC representatives as the SLORC should not meddle with the NLD’s choice of their representative.

In any meeting with the SLORC, the decision of the NLD is to be represented jointly by the chairman who is Aung Schwe, and the General who is Suu Kyi. She said that mutual respect dictates that the SLORC should respect the representatives designated by her party in any talks.

Third, the NLD is willing to cooperate and work with the SLORC and the army for the nation’s interest and well-being.

Fourth, the National Assembly must be convened. In 1990, when elections were held for the National Assembly, out of about 400 seats the National League for Democracy of Suu Kyi won more than 300 seats or at least 82 percent of total members.

Even now, whenever there is national meeting or convention, which cannot be held without prior consent by the SLORC, at least 200 of the NLD elected members still attend. They come to the meeting on their own, walking from as far as the north from the hills without any financial assistance from the Party.

When we asked her if she believes her Party can win if there is another election, she expressed confidence her Party would win by an even bigger margin. She said she had no doubts they would be returned to power if elections are held.

When we asked her if she was prepared to govern because winning an election is one thing but governing is another, she said, “Yes, because many of the members elected to the National Assembly, more than 300 of the 400 can form a government right away.” She said, “In forming a government, we would give preference to those who stayed and remained with us on Burmese soil during the struggle.”

We also asked her about the renaming Burma to Myanmar. She said, “We have no objection to renaming Burma to Myanmar but this must be decided in a referendum. Changing the name of the country cannot be done by a cabal of generals. The Burmese people should decide whether they want to change the name of their country to Myanmar or retain the name Burma.”

We asked her about the future role of the Army, and she said she is willing to work with the military as she feels that the Army should be part of any Burmese administration. In fact, she said, “because the Father of the Burmese Army is my father, I have a special affinity to the soldiers.”

It is time that real talks begin between the democratic forces and the members of the SLORC. Even before the region’s economic turmoil, the downturn in the country’s economy had already caused misery and suffering to the Burmese. Economic growth was then expected to slow down to less than five percent.

Inflation was running at about 27 percent, foreign exchange had dropped alarmingly to about less than 200 million kyats, exports has fallen by 15 percent while imports had risen nearly 7 percent.

In our meeting with Suu Kyi, she told us one of the hardest hit by inflation and the harsh life were members of the Armed Forces. The lower ranks of the military were earning about 1,000 kyats then when the minimum for decent living is at 5,000 kyats.

In the meetings with the ASEAN countries and with the United Nations, the following should be seriously addressed:

First, the safety and security of Suu Kyi (must be ensured) because she has been under assassination threats and we do not want her to suffer the fate of Ninoy Aquino.

Second, she must be allowed freedom to move. There should be no restriction to peaceful assembly and visits to any part of the country. But as of now, her residence is under military restriction and she has to ask permission to leave.

Third, the National Assembly should be convened. As Suu Kyi said, “If convened, we do not demand that the National Assembly serves its full term. As long as the National Assembly is convened, we are willing to negotiate its duration.”

Fourth, a free, untrammeled and peaceful election should be held immediately after the dissolution of the Assembly.

In spite of all travails and tribulations, Suu Kyi remains upbeat as she looks to the future with hopes undimmed. As she told us, “After all, I can outlast all of them.” (She is 53 years old, much younger than most of the SLORC members).

In a recent speech, Suu Kyi expressed this sanguine outlook:

“How wonderful it is. It is no simple matter to decide who are the more fortunate. Those to whom life gives all or those who have to give all to life? A fulfilled life is not necessarily one constructed strictly in accordance with one’s own blueprint. It can be a glorious collage of materials that have come unexpectedly to hand.

“How wonderful it is that we do not know what tomorrow will bring.”

To Suu Kyi, in the not too distant future, inevitably Burma will join the ranks of the free world.

As Burma struggles to claim her rightful place in the sun we join hands with Suu Kyi in her vision of a free, just and democratic Burma.

This year, on the 50th anniversary of Burmese independence, we take the opportunity to wish Suu Kyi and her people hail and godspeed.

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