Despite the parallels with South Africa, westerners have kept their distance.
Democracy for Myanmar (Burma) under a newly freed and charming grandmother, with no taste for personal revenge for years lost under house arrest — how rare and refreshing to find a cause that unites left and right across the globe in these deeply divided times.
We have got used to polarisation around the causes that define our epoch: the war on terror, Palestine, the western wars in Muslim countries, climate change, civil liberties. The significant political fault lines of yesteryear — anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Latin America's years of military repression, South Africa's tortured wait for majority rule — were similarly dramatically divisive. In Britain the great and the good were thin on the ground to support popular movements in these arenas, which all posed fundamental challenges to the power relations in the world.
The world view
The great Bishop Trevor Huddleston, for instance, leading Britain's Anti-Apartheid Movement, had a terrific fight during the Thatcher years to advance his moral vision of the wickedness of indifference to apartheid. Nelson Mandela's image took a long time to change to friend of big business interests and movie stars. As late as the 1980s, editors still had the habit of asking correspondents for “perhaps more balance” when reporting the outrages perpetrated by white rulers in South Africa, as in covering Palestine.
No one today would suggest a more benign view of the Myanmarese generals who have ruined their country, made it a byword for torture and forced labour, sent tens of thousands into exile, and still hold more than 2,000 political prisoners. From Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel, to Harvard Law School, Amnesty and Gordon Brown, condemnation of Myanmar's military government has been a constant and consistently ineffectual backdrop to Aung San Suu Kyi's imprisonment and the appalling circumstances endured by the country's persecuted students, monks, minorities and opposition members. Myanmar has always been an outsider's fashionable cause, regardless of what your political affiliation.
This may be partly because the Myanmarese struggle, taking place so far away in an unfamiliar land, is not one that westerners feel individually or nationally implicated in. Indeed, the main support for the regime over the years has come from China, now a convenient bogeyman for economic reasons.
This response is also influenced by how Myanmar is perceived internationally. No significant boats will be rocked on account of changes in that country. It has no strategic or geopolitical importance except to its regional business partners — again, that being China in particular.
Suu Kyi and Mandela
It is also a reflection of how Aung San Suu Kyi herself is viewed. Unlike the world's former favourite ex-political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, she has no shadow side — Mandela was of course also leader of an underground army trained in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Gentle, attractive, passive under house arrest and thoughtfully circumspect now freed, she has almost come to symbolise the perfect captive.
With her immense bravery in the past, and her quiet determination now to open dialogue and to refrain from condemning her military jailers, she is a figure in striking contrast with today's political leaders we love to mock.
The parallels drawn at the weekend with Mandela's release were inevitable — but not because there is in Myanmar the slightest resemblance to the dramatic conditions that came together in South Africa at that time and the international support for a stable business climate, which brought the end of white rule there.
The parallels are with the existence of an international hero who serves as a safely removed parental figure and embodies characteristics now so rare in public life: integrity, dignity, and hope for bringing change to a desperate society that most of the world has chosen to forget for so many decades.
Forty years ago, getting a rare visa to visit Myanmar, I saw a country that was already paralysed by the military takeover of 1962 and the imposed isolation which followed. I remember Myanmar's silence and what I wrongly took for peace among the mountains, rivers and pagodas. I remember the other-worldliness of the highly educated woman on the bus who gave me three tiny gemstones to thank me for the pleasure of speaking English, the city of Mandalay entirely populated by softly smiling monks, and the extraordinary impossibility of casual conversation with Myanmarese people. It was impenetrable, and the attraction of these contained people, embodied in Aung San Suu Kyi now, has captured the world's attention.
Change in this tortured society will take more than verbal support for democracy from the outside world, and the Myanmarese know it will be their own fight, far away from Aung San Suu Kyi's western well-wishers. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010