October 24, 2017
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Dissecting The Lady and Burma’s hope

  • Category: Life
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Burma expert Bertil Linter  Photo: Courtesy Bertil Lintner
Shortly before 5 p.m. on November 13, 2010, a sudden burst of activity engulfed the far gate to Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound, as dozens of men ...

Title: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Democracy
Author: Bertil Lintner
Publisher: Silkworm Books, October 2011
(Book Review) – Shortly before 5 p.m. on November 13, 2010, a sudden burst of activity engulfed the far gate to Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound, as dozens of men in white shirts and dark longyis could be seen moving away from the residence at a hurried pace. As the sun slipped below trees and buildings lining University Avenue, state media reported the release order for the most famous of political prisoners. And then, there she was, a face so familiar yet somehow foreign. At 5:22 p.m., the Lady herself popped up over the yellow gate with red trim, her face glowing and drawing the audience to her. She accepted a bouquet of flowers and duly tucked a single blossom behind her right ear, completing the iconic image of millions throughout the world.

During previous trips to Burma, with Suu Kyi firmly held within the confines of her estate, I was repeatedly told by staunch supporters that once she was free Burma’s troubles would soon be solved. She would know what to do. And buoyed by the atmosphere in front of her home that November evening and the ensuing day in the vicinity of her National League for Democracy’s office, hope was definitely in the Rangoon air.

But, there were other reactions to her release, an event that without question drew immense interest across the general public. Suu Kyi’s struggle for democracy and Burma was by then more than two decades old. During that period the valiant efforts of both The Lady and her supporters had won precious little gains for Burma’s population. Away from the euphoria surrounding her immediate whereabouts, would-be enthusiasts minded their shops, congregated around tea stalls and went about their days as usual. Their reactions to the release proved largely consistent: they first needed to see some progress on the ground.

Renowned Burma expert Bertil Lintner’s latest literary effort, Aung Sun Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy, is a lucid attempt at a balanced appraisal of the persona of Burma’s prolific opposition leader in her ongoing struggle to assist in the realization of a better Burma, bringing to light her negative as well as by now well-chronicled positive traits. Not all observations are new, with Suu Kyi herself, for example, having commented on the double-edged sword that is her penchant for stubbornness. But, Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy delves much deeper, asking much needed and harder questions in the interest of addressing Burma’s political ills.

In attempting to balance The Lady’s strengths with weaknesses, Lintner is rightly wary that for at least some readers the text will serve as a focus of ridicule. The anticipated reaction speaks to the deification of Suu Kyi over the years, as well as to just how emotional, bifuricated and fragile remains the Burmese political landscape for many involved. Writing of Burmese political history since 1988, Lintner says, “Whatever the misconceptions, Suu Kyi versus the SLORC [a previous acronymn for the military junta] became in most people’s minds the Beauty and the Beast––a courageous woman against one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships…But the situation in Burma since the massive uprising for democracy in 1988 has never been that simple.”

Moreover, Burma’s present problems well pre-date 1988, as Lintner acknowledges in identifying narcotics and Burma’s ethnic populations as the most pressing issues confronting the country today. Though the subject of Suu Kyi leading a second Panglong conference appears to have lost momentum in recent months, Lintner cautions of previous attempts to bridge political gaps between the country’s central government and ethnic populations leading up to independence––a definitive inference to the ill-fated conference at Panglong in 1947.

“Seen in retrospect,” he writes, “it is plausible to assume that all these promises and concessions to the frontier peoples were given in order to rally the broadest possible support for a quick solution to the problems surrounding Burma’s unity and independence.” Returning to the present, Lintner, referencing the words and writings of Aung San Suu Kyi, questions whether the importance of identity within ethnic communities is yet fully appreciated with respect to any vision of a future, unitary state. 

In tracing the evolution of what can be gleaned of Aung San Suu Kyi’s broader political evolution, the volume draws heavily from Gustaaf Houtman’s Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics; Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. Building on Houtman’s research, Lintner concludes, “Suu Kyi’s strength is her ability to rally people around her and make them listen to her message. Her weakness is her quest for a ‘revolution of the spirit,’ which smacks of obscurantism and sheer metaphysics.” In other words, what is called for is a needed transition beyond words and appeals to concrete political planning.

Here, Lintner offers an interesting hypothesis worthy of further investigation. He questions what impact the time Suu Kyi and her husband, Michael Aris, spent in Bhutan during the 1970s in close contact with Bhutan’s king and nobility could have had on The Lady’s perceived appreciation of spirituality trumping concerns for economic growth. As one point of potential evidence, Lintner mentions the uniquely Bhutanese “economic” indicator of Gross National Happiness, in preference to the standard Gross Domestic Product.
Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi greets a crowd of well-wishers in Pegu north of Rangoon during her second trip outside the former capital since her release from house arrest late last year.  Photo: Mizzima

Other hurdles identified by Lintner as needing to be overcome and touching upon either The Lady or that of the country in general are largely consistent with those recorded by this reviewer on a recent trip to Burma. Concerning her National League for Democracy party and those around her, there is an assessed lack of qualified personnel to assist in work and in the provision of consultation. This is paired with what is said at times to be an over reliance on strict legal procedures and posturing. And as for Burma itself, building on years of irresponsible governance predating the arrival of Aung San Suu Kyi onto the scene, it is said the country suffers from a severe gap in employment potential––including government posts––as those with requisite skill sets are generally more than 60 years of age while hope for the future is placed in the development of today’s youth.

The text also reserves some slightly harsh words for Burma’s exile community, a population that is correctly or otherwise often assumed intimately linked with the interests of The Lady and her National League for Democracy movement. “They,” finds Lintner with respect to the exile community, “advocate ‘dialogue’ and ‘national reconciliation’––catchwords that are popular with the international donor but of little or no relevance to developments inside Burma, where the military talks to no one except themselves.” However, while it is true that such words and phrases often suffer from a lack of a common definition applicable to the case of Burma, it should not be forgotten that it is also an echo of what has in the past sounded from the confines of 54 University Avenue. To extrapolate upon Lintner, there is a significant divide, abetting in a significant lack of potential roads forward, between those viewing Burma’s problems via a uniquely “international” or “Burma” lens.

Ultimately, in what quite candidly comes across as a relatively bleak short-term outlook for the country—a fractured Yugoslavia scenario at several points not ruled out—what glimmers of hope does Lintner identify in future scenarios for Burma?

On the one hand, Lintner finds “change would have to come from within the only institution that really matters in the country––its armed forces”––an as yet contentious conclusion that also reflects on the doomed general elections of 1990. But how to marry this with Burma’s opposition leader? It is easy to see where the posturing of Suu Kyi, who readily admits to the influence of her time spent abroad on her politics, could be construed by highly nationalistic and paranoid elements within the state’s security sector as anathema to national interests.

On the other hand, time will tell if the latest reincarnation of Suu Kyi can be more successful in leading Burma forward than past attempts. The relative spate of recent interactions with government representatives and joint communiqués is a call for cautious expectations, as she treads a different path than previously explored. But still, Lintner is correct in pointing out that any prognosis is at present difficult to make, as there is really very little historical record to know just what The Lady thinks and to judge how she may act. Nevertheless, burdened as she is with the deification bestowed upon her by a multitude of supporters, it will be critical for Aung San Suu Kyi to continue to find her own voice, because she is, concludes Lintner and despite whatever flaws she may carry, “Burma’s only hope for a better future.”

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