To admirers, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the embodiment of steadfastness. To critics, she is a rigid and impractical politician.

Understandably, even well-read people fumble if asked to name the leader of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement — Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She is referred variously as ‘Suu Kyi', ‘Mrs Aung', ‘Daw Suu' or ‘The Lady.' A safer, if impersonal, way is to use only her initials. What, however, is regretful is that our insularity prevents us from listening to her and reflecting on what she has to say about her country, our important but neglected neighbour. She may not hold all keys to the Myanmar riddle now but she retains a strong influence on her people and the country's international partners. And India still figures prominently in her thoughts.

The BBC did a singular service to Myanmar watchers by broadcasting two lectures by ASSK under the 2011 Reith lecture series named ‘Securing Freedom.' These were secretly taped and smuggled out. Entitled ‘Liberty' and ‘Dissent', they were shared with the world on June 28 and July 5. A notable point at the outset is that although she severely criticised previous military regimes, the present ‘civilian' government has chosen to react with tolerance and maturity by largely ignoring her criticism.

Freedom, truth and non-violence

Crafted astutely, the lectures reflect her intellectual depth and spiritual strength. ASSK shares her thoughts on what freedom means to her and to others who are still in the sad state of “un-freedom.” She reiterates the importance of “freedom from fear,” arguing that fear is an adversary that remains until the end. Its elimination need not be “complete” — only “sufficient to enable us to carry on,” although even this requires tremendous courage. Hers is an unparalleled profile in courage and passion for her cause. She rejects the label of “opposition” for her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), preferring to call it a “dissident movement.” Citing Vaclav Havel, she observes that the basic job of a dissident is “to serve the truth.”

If it sounds quintessentially Gandhian, her recent views on non-violence have a peculiar nuance. While she herself rejects violence, she asserts that she did not condemn those who indulged in violence against the military regime. She adds that “if I were to support violence,” it would be only because she believed that a short burst of violence would prevent “worse things from happening in the long term.” She asserts that her adherence to non-violence is due to political and practical, not moral, considerations.

‘The second struggle'

Although adopting a civil and measured tone, she is unsparing in her criticism of the generals. Referring to the State Law and Order Council which ruled the country from 1988 to 1997, she points out that the Burmese equivalent of ‘law and order' is ‘quiescent, cowering, crushed, and flattened.' Citizenry of this kind was “perhaps not far from the truth” then. The NLD, she says, stands for an antithesis of such kind of people.

When starting her movement long years ago, she called it “the second struggle for independence,” but she notes the differences. The main difference is that while the first struggle was against a foreign power, Britain, this one is against antagonists who are “the same nation, the same race, the same colour, the same religion.” Another difference is that while the colonial government was authoritarian, “it was significantly less totalitarian” than the junta.

Other issues

The State Peace and Development Council, which ruled from 1997 to 2010, is not spared either. The referendum and elections organised by it are depicted as “mishaps.” She spells out three reasons behind the NLD's non-participation in the 2010 elections: the new Constitution's provision that the Army can take back all powers whenever it wants was unacceptable; the NLD was unwilling to abandon its members languishing in jails; and it rejected the idea that the 1990 elections (which had resulted in its decisive victory) may be “wiped off the political map.” What truly troubles the NLD and its supreme leader is the stark reality that the Constitution is the military's gift to people rather than the prize they have won themselves; and that a large chunk of political class and civil society is willing to try out the new dispensation.

The Q&A sessions that followed the lectures produced valuable insights. She was dismissive of the recent elections and the new government. There are “no real changes” — only “lots of very beautiful words, but these are not enough.” She holds the view that “a charade of democracy can be more dangerous than outright dictatorship,” explaining that people want change so much that “they are deceiving themselves” in believing that it has arrived. Many disagree with her, but this is where she stands. Responding to criticism that the NLD is caught “in a rut” and is “frozen in time” and asked to indicate which of the four policy instruments to deal with the government — engage, isolate, impose sanctions and attack — she would prefer, she says “critical engagement” is her favoured approach. She wants the world to help in “our network for democracy,” thereby “empowering the people and decreasing their dependency on the government.” One only hopes that doves led by President Thein Sein are listening and will gain strength to engage her. Myanmar's problems are serious and deep-seated. The absence of national reconciliation is a heavy cross to bear.

International politics

ASSK's views on the internal situation evoke both support and criticism. To admirers, she is the embodiment of steadfastness. To critics, she is a rigid and impractical politician. But when it comes to international affairs, it is difficult to agree with her.

She criticises India's policy towards Myanmar again. India, she says, “should be firmly rooted in the democratic principles, instead of putting trade and strategic interests in the forefront.” Conceding that even other democracies (such as South Africa which she admires) have not supported her movement, she adds philosophically: “I am disappointed but at the same time we got rather used to it.” Her anguish is understandable, but does she understand how international politics works? Her comments about China show even greater impracticality. She says (rightly) that China wants stability in Myanmar, but believes (wrongly) that China has reservations about stability through military repression or about its relationship with Myanmar. Their traditional fraternal relations have recently been turned into a strategic partnership. Her view that the European Union is “very supportive” may be true of the past but many member-states are now looking for pathways to cooperate with the government.

Two replies were particularly moving. Asked if her sacrifices (including denial of opportunity to bid goodbye to a dying husband) were too high a price to pay, she said that many others had “paid much more ... for their beliefs.” On whether she was aware that she might have to give up her life for her cause, she replied: “Yes, I think we all come to terms with such a possibility early on.”

ASSK is an extraordinary icon, with a mixed bag of successes and setbacks. As an expert put it, “internally she has kept the flame of hope alive in a long and dark period.” Externally she is an inspiration to those fighting for liberty. But her coming to power to lead a democratic Myanmar ... well, that is quite another matter.

(The author is a former ambassador to Myanmar.)

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