Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Ray of Sunshine in Myanmar

It's been quite a long time since I offered an entry in my "Ray of Sunshine" series. To refresh your memory, the earlier stories were about Greg Mortenson, who helps rural communities build schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Dr. Sanduk Ruit, an eye surgeon who brings the gift of sight to thousands of poor people in Nepal.

If you're like me you're probably getting very tired of the daily gloom and doom that dominates the news these days. Conflict and strife, death and destruction, stalemate and stagnation, calamity and chaos -- these seem to be the media's focus most of the time. Something positive and uplifting would be a welcome relief.

Here's a possible candidate. And it's one from a very unlikely arena -- politics.

Her name is Aung San Suu Kyi,  a dynamic and altogether admirable populist leader in Burma (Myanmar) recently elected to Parliament after being held under house arrest by the military-run government for 15 of the last 21 years. She is pro-democracy, committed to peaceful means of bringing about social change, a proponent of compromise and reaching out to opponents, and so far as anyone can tell she is a person of the highest personal integrity, conscience and intelligence.  In short, a rather unusual politician -- particularly by current American standards.

I first became aware of Aung San Suu Kyi when my wife and I traveled to Myanmar early in 2012 (see "Mini-Monks in Myanmar").  Our visit happened to be during the campaigning for open seats in Parliament and Suu Kyi's popularity was evident everywhere we went.  The Burmese people often refer to her as "The Lady," a term of great respect and affection.  They clearly hold her in very high esteem and reverence for her years of sacrifice for the cause of bringing democracy to her country.

Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948. Suu Kyi's father was instrumental in that struggle and likely would have been a very prominent leader in the new government if he had not been assassinated by political rivals in 1947 when Suu Kyi was 2 years old. The fledgling government was democratic and representative, but had great difficulty dealing with conflicts between competing political and ethnic groups. The military took over in 1958 to stabilize the country and establish central control, but peace imposed from the barrel of a gun is notoriously unstable and when hostile factions are forced to coexist lethal pressure explodes when the force is removed.  Several attempts over the years to return to elected government resulted in chaos and the reimposition of military rule with an increasingly corrupt, cruel, and authoritarian leadership that has shown itself to be insensitive to the plight of the average citizen.  By the way, it was the military government that changed the name of the country to Myanmar.  For this reason Aung San Suu Kyi prefers to use the older name Burma.

In 1990 the military held the country's first election in 30 years, and although it tried to squelch the pro-democratic party of which Aung San Suu Kyi was a member by placing her and several other party leaders under house arrest, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the party candidates.  The military was of course displeased with the results and barred the winners from taking office.  After five years of continued suppression Suu Kyi was released from house arrest but not allowed to travel outside of Yangon.  Even with this restriction her popularity grew, threatening the regime's control.  In 2000 she was detained again and spent the next decade, except for a brief period in 2002-2003, under house arrest.

In 2010 the military held a referendum on a new constitution -- this one carefully crafted to contain provisions ensuring their continued power even in an elected government.  The referendum was held in the terrible aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in which the military barred foreign relief workers or even foreign planes to deliver aid.  At the time voting took place nearly 2.5 million people were still either homeless or in need of food and medical assistance.  Despite this the government claimed that 98% of the electorate voted and -- surprise -- the constitution was approved by 92%.  Feeling confident their power was secured,  Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released from custody and allowed to run for office, which she won by an overwhelming margin.  It remains to be seen how effective she can be in the restrictive governmental structure, but at least her voice can now be heard and she can exert legitimate influence on shaping Myanmar's future.

Her new freedom has also allowed her to travel internationally and to address audiences world-wide. And to hear her speak about her political and personal philosophy is a delight. She is articulate, rational, soft-spoken, compassionate even toward her opponents, and willing to admit when she is wrong.  Quite a contrast to the rancorous, sloganistic, dogmatic and mean-spirited political dialogue that characterizes most of our current crop of politicians and faux-news commentary. We would do well in the U.S. to follow her example. (If you want a quick taste of Aung San Suu Kyi's views and her personality, I recommend a recent 30-minute interview on our local PBS station show, Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.)

I'll close with a few quotes that I think illustrate why I think she is indeed a ray of sunshine:
"Often the other side of the coin of intolerance is insecurity. Insecure people tend to be intolerant, and their intolerance unleashes forces that threaten the security of others. And where there is no security there can be no lasting peace. "  (Opening Keynote Address at NGO Forum on Women, Beijing 1991) 

"A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man's self-respect and inherent human dignity."   (Acceptance message for the 1990 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought)

"To be kind is to respond with sensitivity and human warmth to the hopes and needs of others. Even the briefest touch of kindness can lighten a heavy heart. Kindness can change the lives of people."  (Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, 2012)

1 comment:

Dennis L. Nord said...

A beautiful person of international stature in her thinking and perspective on freedom and understanding. May she enjoy much better treatment than she has had. Thanks for bringing her to my attention on the 4th!