Reading Aung San Suu Kyi: A Belated Birthday Wish

Aung San Suu Kyi, posing in 2002 with a picture of her father Aung San, a founding father of modern Burma

This past Saturday (June 19) was Aung San Suu Kyi’s sixty-fifth birthday. She has not been much in the news lately, but her story is hard to forget. The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. The leader of the Burmese democracy movement rising out of her student protests against the country’s military dictatorship that roiled Rangoon in 1989. How she has sacrificed much of her adult life to the cause of freedom in Burma, under house arrest or otherwise imprisoned much of the past twenty-plus years. She is by any standard a hero.

The situation today in Burma remains intractable. The country’s military junta maintains an iron grip on power, and there’s not much anyone can do about it. Europe makes indignant noises from time to time, but Burma’s neighbors – India, Thailand, and most critically China – don’t much care. In another era, or perhaps another part of the world, the U.S. government might have had some influence. But the rise of China combined with the loss of our own economic clout leaves us without any realistic recourse. Our military remains paramount, but we’re not about to go to war again in Southeast Asia.

The Burmese government is looking to hold “elections” this fall – on the propitious date of 10-10-10! – but the contest will exclude Suu Kyi’s political party (the NLD, or National League of Democracy) and thus be patently illegitimate.

Many argue though that this is a step forward. There seems to be momentum – from Burma’s neighbors and even influential figures in the U.S. Government such as Virginia Senator Jim Webb – behind the idea that to move forward Burma must put Aung San Suu Kyi behind it.

She’s old now, observers argue. Too polemical. History has passed her by. If Suu Kyi is put to the side, Burma’s military dictatorship can gradually open up without losing face.

This may well be the realpolitik as far as foreign policy goes. Pushing Suu Kyi to the side may be the easiest, most practical way for Burma to move forward. And so it may happen.

But we should not forget her just yet. It is not time. Take a look, read her “Freedom From Fear” speech. Better yet read her book of essays of the same title.

The wellspring of courage and endurance in the face of unbridled power is generally a firm belief in the sanctity of ethical principles combined with a historical sense that despite all setbacks the condition of man is set on an ultimate course for both spiritual and material advancement. It is his capacity for self-improvement and self-redemption which most distinguishes man from the mere brute. At the root of human responsibility is the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitations and environmental impediments. It is man’s vision of a world fit for rational, civilized humanity which leads him to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power.

History is seldom ambiguous as to its protagonists. And history, ultimately, chooses its heroes well. Long after the names of Generals Ne Win, Khin Nyunt, Than Shwe, and the other small, evil military men who have run Burma into the ground these past fifty years slide into their ignominy, people in Burma and around the world will remember Aung San Suu Kyi through her words and her deeds.

Many happy returns.

Toby Bryce is a co-founder of ReadThis.

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