Gandhian Nonviolent Action : A Case Study of Aung San Suu Kyi's Struggle in Myanmar


 PEACE, NON-VIOLENCE AND CONFLICT-RESOLUTION - Gandhian Nonviolent Action : A Case Study of Aung San Suu Kyi's Struggle in Myanmar


Gandhi's method of nonviolent action continues to be drawn upon by individuals and movements fighting against the tyranny of violence and oppression in India as well as abroad. Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar is a case in point. Suu Kyi emerged on the scene in 1988 when there were demands for restoration of democracy in Myanmar. She formed the National League for Democracy and led a sustained nonviolent protest against the military junta. Suu Kyi has demonstrated indomitable courage and conviction in the face of all odds—making several personal sacrifices in the fight for democracy—yet remaining nonviolent in letter and spirit. The present paper is an attempt to understand Suu Kyi's nonviolent struggle, her philosophy and beliefs, the circumstances in which she has carried out her resistance movement and the challenges before her.

Burma: From Independence till 1987

JOHN KANE SAYS THAT the story of Aung San Suu interwoven deeply with that of modern Burma...” 1 Myanmar was earlier known as Burma and was a British colony. Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, grabbed national attention in 1936 during the strike by university students. He led a revolutionary struggle against the British imperial power by taking secret help of the Japanese. During the Second World War, he raised the Burma Independence Army which fought against the British. When the War was still on, Japan gave independence to Burma and Aung San became the minister of defense. However, soon he got disenchanted with the Japanese, revolted against them and sided with the Allies to gain independence for Burma. After the War, he negotiated with the British for independence by leading a nationalist coalition. Unfortunately, before Burma could become formally independent, Aung San was assassinated in July 1947 by political rivals at the young age of thirty-two. At the time of his assassination, he was leading the process of writing a constitution for independent Burma on the one hand and on the other talking to the various minority groups “to accommodate all the ethnic nationalities of Burma within a unified democratic state."2 He seriously directed his efforts and energies to the latter. “No leader after him had the political support he engendered nor the ability to translate his vision of a united, peaceful, and prosperous Burma into reality.”3 No doubt then that Aung San is revered as a national hero in Burma.

Burma became independent on 4 January 1948 and U Nu became its Prime Minister. In 1961, under Nu’s leadership, Buddhism was declared as the official state religion. This alienated the various Christian ethnic minorities and gave rise to insurgency movements. In March 1962, General Ne Win, the head of the armed forces seized power and his Revolutionary Council declared the Burmese Way to Socialism. In 1974, Burma became a Socialist republic under the supervision of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). People however were frustrated with this one-party rule. Moreover, the economic situation kept deteriorating, so much so that by 1987, Burma “had been forced to apply for the status of Least Developed Country to gain relief from its burden of foreign debt.”4 The paradox was that Burma was once a rich country and a leading exporter of rice in Asia.

The Four-Eights Democracy Movement and Suu Kyi's Emergence on the Scene: The watershed year of 1988

Trouble started brewing from mid-1987 as there were some riots followed by student demonstrations against the government in March 1988. In July 1988, General Win resigned owning responsibility for various mistakes committed by his government. On 8 August 1988, peaceful pro-democracy protests were being held in Rangoon in the wake of a general strike. The army, locally known as the Tatmadaw, retaliated brutally and there was a massacre. This is known in Burmese history as the Four-Eights Democracy Movement (8-8-88 based on the date 8 August 1988). Meanwhile in 1988 itself, Suu Kyi came to Burma from England to look after her ailing mother. In the wake of the prevailing chaos, she was under pressure to join the pro-democracy movement. John Kane says, " was chance or perhaps destiny that found her present at the most critical hour of history....was ...on hand when the country erupted into full-scale revolt in August 1988."5 Finally, in her first public appearance on 26 August 1988, Suu Kyi pledged support to the movement for democracy and termed it as the "second struggle for independence". This is where she first shared her ideals of nonviolence. Given the anarchic situation, the military seized power on 18 September 1988. This regime was officially referred to as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The SLORC struck hard on the demonstrators. However, it also promised to hold multi-party elections and even allow political parties to be formed. In the wake of these developments, Suu Kyi now wanted to pursue the cause of democratization in a sustained and serious way and thus helped found, with some other leaders, the National League for Democracy (NLD) on 27 September 1988. Suu Kyi was the General Secretary of the party. She insisted on strict adherence to nonviolence and reiterated her resolve to resist the military government nonviolently. As she became more and more popular, the military government felt threatened and it cracked down on the supporters and leaders of NLD.

'Burma' to 'Myanmar': 1989 and After

As the days passed by Suu Kyi became more vocal in her criticism of the SLORC and the Tatmadaw and campaigned in various part of the country. On 5 April 1989 during one of her campaigns, an army official commanded soldiers to direct their rifles towards her with the intention to kill. However, another army official intervened at the right time and prevented an untoward incident. The junta hence employed intimidation tactics to scare off Suu Kyi but she was undaunted and remained resolute in her resolve.

In June 1989, the military fired upon her and several students during a memorial service, resulting in the death of a student. This led Suu Kyi to cancel a memorial service planned for July 7. However, she still wanted to go ahead with the July 19 memorial service, the day her father had been killed. The military regime wanted her to be part of their events marking her father's death anniversary, which she forthrightly refused. As there was a lot of tension building up, Suu Kyi cancelled her proposed visit to the memorial, so as to prevent any bloodshed. But the very next day, she was put under house arrest and not allowed to communicate with anybody. Other leaders of the NLD were also put under house arrest.

In the meanwhile, the SLORC rechristened the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” as the “Union of Myanmar”. It also announced that general elections for the National Assembly or Pyithu Hluttaw would be held in May next year. In December 1989, Suu Kyi put forward her candidature for the forthcoming elections. The Election Commission initially approved her name but the same was challenged by an opponent belonging to the National Unity Party (NUP), a proxy of the junta. The opponent alleged that Suu Kyi was in touch with the dissidents who were fighting against government forces. Suu Kyi countered this claim by appealing to the Election Commission but her appeal was rejected and she was disqualified from contesting in the elections.

Elections were held in May 1990. In spite of Suu Kyi's complete absence from the election scenario and severe restrictions imposed on canvassing and other election related activities, the NLD won over eighty percent of the seats contested. These results were however declared null and void. This act of the junta was severely criticised by the international community in general and western powers in particular. However, it is pertinent to point out here that there was a lot of confusion and there was no consensus even with regard to what the elections were actually meant for in the first place.

Originally, the SLORC did intend to hand over power to the party winning the elections but later they receded and said that the elections were being held for electing the members of the National Assembly whose main job would be to frame a new constitution. Most political parties however assumed that the elections were meant to hand over power to a democratically elected government. According to the military regime, once the constitution was written and adopted, then another round of elections were to be held for transferring power in accordance with the rules laid out in the new constitution. In any case, what mechanism would be used to adopt the new constitution was never spelled out by the junta. Thus it can be reasonably concluded that “the elections were held in a political vacuum without any previously agreed process designed to lead to the transfer of power, or even a general understanding of how best to proceed.”6

After the elections, the SLORC did not allow the convening of the National Assembly, which was very frustrating for the newly elected representatives. Some of them thus secretly met in Mandalay in October 1990 and agreed to convene an Assembly later on. In a bid to prevent this from happening, the junta imposed a security clamp-down. Around a dozen representatives fled to areas controlled by the insurgents and established the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) in December 1990, which later went into exile. The NLD however did not associate itself with the NCGUB.

In 1993, the SLORC convened a National Convention with the help of a few hand-picked delegates. The aim of this convention was to draw up a draft of the future constitution. However, the SLORC directed the delegates to ensure that the military continues to play an important part in the government. Due to pressures from the junta, the NLD agreed to be part of the Convention but withdrew from it in late 1995. By then Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest. She stated that the procedures of the Convention “were undemocratic and discussion too highly controlled.”7 In any case the Convention did not have a fixed time frame. Suu Kyi's statements against the functioning of the Convention were termed as “traitorous” by the SLORC. As a result, the NLD delegates were removed from it.

After being condemned worldwide for its brutal actions and human rights violations, the SLORC tried to legitimise its rule and augment its image by changing its name in November 1997 to “the less threatening sounding State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).”8 Besides, it declared a ceasefire with all except one ethnic group involved in the insurgency movement.

On 30 August 2003, Prime Minister Khin Nyunt “in a speech to the ministry officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), unveiled a seven-point roadmap for democratic transition in Myanmar that included re-convening the National Convention (NC), drafting a new constitution according to the principles adopted at the NC, holding a national referendum for the new constitution, holding free and fair elections, convening the Hluttaw (parliament), and the formation of a new, democratic government.”9 Once the National Convention was re-convened and then successfully concluded, the required tasks were to be implemented in a step by step fashion that would eventually lead to the emergence of a democratic system. Towards the end of 2003, the National Convention was re-convened by the junta. However, it never revealed a time frame for implementing the rest of the phases of the roadmap. In May 2008 the new constitution was approved in a referendum.

The year 2007 was witness to another wave of peaceful anti-government protests in Myanmar. The SPDC removed subsidies on fuel which led to a sudden rise in prices. This decision was however never announced publicly and led to protests that started on 15 August 2007 and continued up to October. In any case, the common man was fed up of the worsening political and economic situation within Myanmar. The protests were harshly dealt with by the junta. Buddhist monks joined the protests in large numbers, giving it the name, ‘Saffron Revolution’.

The Transition Phase: 2010 to the present

2010 was a landmark year in the history of modern Myanmar as several reforms were initiated in that year. On 13 August, the SPDC declared the holding of general elections on 7 November 2010 in accordance with the provisions of the new constitution. After two decades, the first national elections were held in November 2010. However, the NLD boycotted the elections. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a proxy of the military junta, won the elections. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest on 13 November, right after the elections. In 2011, the SPDC or the military junta was officially dissolved and a civilian government led by Thein Sein, who headed the USDP, came to power. However, the military continues to exercise its influence on the civilian government. Thein Sein, the present civilian President, a retired general, has freed several political prisoners. Media restrictions have also been eased. Most of all, Sein met Suu Kyi in August 2011 and tried to convince her and her party the NLD to rejoin the political process. As a result, the NLD was re-registered. It participated in the by-elections held recently on 1 April 2012. The NLD won the elections emphatically and Suu Kyi became the leader of the opposition.

Suu Kyi's Life, Thought and Philosophy: her views on Non-violence, Democracy, Peace and Justice

Suu Kyi's inheritance, upbringing, and education have contributed in shaping her non-violent thoughts, principles and actions. Her father, General Aung San, is revered as the hero of the independence struggle of Burma. Suu Kyi was just two years old when he was assassinated. Her mother, Khin Kyi was a strict disciplinarian, who raised her in an upright and moral way.

Suu Kyi is well-educated, well-read and has travelled extensively and lived in different parts of the world. Her early school education took place in Burma. In 1960, she came to Delhi when her mother was appointed as Burma's Ambassador to India, a post she held until 1967. Suu Kyi completed her schooling in Delhi and then went on to do graduation in politics. Later, she left for Oxford University where she studied, economics, politics, philosophy and the Japanese language. It was there that she met Dr. Michael Aris, a professor of Tibetology, whom she married later. Suu Kyi was a visiting scholar at Kyoto University and also a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, India. At the time of her return to Burma, she was pursuing an advanced degree in the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Earlier, Suu Kyi was employed at the United Nation's Secretariat in New York. She also worked in the Bhutan Foreign Ministry as a research officer on United Nations affairs, when her husband was in Bhutan conducting research. Suu Kyi also has several published works to her credit: a long essay on her father, a scholarly article on modern Burmese literature, a historical essay comparing Indian and Burmese reaction to colonial rule, which is hailed as a "literary achievement", to name a few.

Thus from 1960 to 1987, Suu Kyi mostly stayed abroad, leading a quiet, scholarly life. In the 1980s, she regularly visited Burma to meet her aging mother. In 1988, she returned to her country to look after her mother, who was now ailing, and eventually got drawn into the pro-democracy movement. In spite of being away from Burma, Suu Kyi was aware of the developments taking place in the country. More than that she was "acutely conscious of her Burmese heritage and of the burden of potential responsibility that it carried......She had mentally prepared herself for the assumption of her father's legacy."10 Her education and experiences in different parts of the world helped prepare her for the hardships that she was to face from 1988 onwards.

Prior to her joining the pro-democracy movement in August 1988, Suu Kyi had no previous experience of being a part of anything similar. Yet she quickly learned and acquired the skills necessary for leading such movements. She dressed traditionally and spoke directly yet modestly to the people in their language and in words that they could relate to. She spoke about her faith in democracy and how the same had to be achieved non-violently and through peaceful means.

Suu Kyi has abided by the philosophy of non-violence in her struggle against the military junta for democracy and human rights. She, however, chose non-violence for political and practical reasons and not for moral ones. David Hardiman says, "Like Gandhi, she adopts non-violent civil disobedience as a matter of principle. For her, it provides a most active form of resistance. She is prepared always to hold out the hand of forgiveness and reconciliation. In all of these respects, she is a leader truly in the Gandhian mould."11

Suu Kyi's philosophy of non-violence has its source in more than one tradition. "U Win Tin, a former editor of the BSPP-era government Burmese-language newspaper Hanthawaddy, allegedly introduced Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to the writings on non-violence by the 19th century American author Henry David Thoreau."12 Gandhi too had been influenced by Henry David Thoreau's idea of civil disobedience. During her stay in India, Suu Kyi had an opportunity to be acquainted with Gandhian thought and philosophy.

She also delved into her own religion, Buddhism to respond to the violence inflicted by the military junta. This made perfect sense for firstly, Buddhism in principle was opposed to violence and secondly, and more importantly, the majority of the citizens being Buddhist, it was easier for them to connect to the idea of non-violence as propounded by Suu Kyi. From Buddhism, she borrowed the concept of meditation especially 'vipasana' meditation and used it "both as a personal response to oppression inflicted by the regime, and as a weapon in the struggle for freedom."13 Meditation has helped

Suu Kyi and other members of the NLD to remain focused and resolute in spite of the various hardships.

Thus, Suu Kyi's nonviolent actions and belief in democracy and human rights are also guided by Western political theory, Gandhian philosophy and her roots in Theravada Buddhism. She "attempted, in the spirit of Gandhi, to synthesize Eastern (specifically Buddhist) and Western traditions. Her thinking thus carried a ......spiritual resonance...."14 In her speeches, interviews and essays, Suu Kyi dwelled upon and explained at length the conceptions of non- violence, democracy, dialogue, freedom, peace and justice. In doing so she takes recourse to combining both – the western ideas and her own faith and the faith of the majority of Burmese people, Buddhism. This synthesis is very well spelt out in her essay, "In Quest of Democracy" written in 1988, which she concluded with the following words: "in their quest of democracy the people of Burma explore not only the political theories and practices of the world outside their country, but also the spiritual and intellectual values that have given shape to their own environment."15

Suu Kyi defines non-violence as "positive action. You have to work for whatever you want. It...means that the methods you use are not violent ones. Some people think that non-violence is passiveness. It's not so. I know it is the slower way, and I understand why our young people feel that it will not work. But I cannot encourage that kind of attitude. Because if I do, we will be perpetuating a cycle of violence that will never come to an end."16 Suu Kyi, thus, does not believe in armed struggle or violence as it perpetuates the tradition "that he who is best at wielding arms, wields power."17 This kind of an attitude is not amenable but rather counter- productive in the struggle for democracy. Love and truth are more powerful than any form of coercion.

For Suu Kyi, the main goal of her struggle is democracy. By democracy, she means the resolution of problems through political means. Democracy is not just limited to the will of the people but also "acknowledges the right to differ as well as the duty to settle differences peacefully."18 Using violent means to solve problems is not the way out as it will result in deaths. The mechanism that needs to be adopted to settle differences and address conflicts is dialogue. Dialogue would help in building trust and promoting understanding as participants engaged in a dialogue talk to each other as equals and on equal terms. For Suu Kyi, dialogue is thus very close related to democracy. The foremost reason for Suu Kyi's participation in the struggle for democracy was that it was an ideology consistent with freedom and the only ideology that promoted and strengthened peace.19 Without democracy, human rights cannot be guaranteed, freedom cannot be exercised and sustainable economic development cannot be achieved. However, there is no one set ideal or form of democracy; its characteristics can change depending upon the culture and worldview of the concerned country. But democracy can be successful only when people participate in the process of governance. This would require empowerment of the people.

The means to achieving democracy is nonviolent political action. This requires the cultivation of values like patience and discipline. The road to democracy is a time-taking process and not easy, one thus needs to be patient. Conducting oneself in a disciplined manner in both the personal and political arena was the most important value. Authoritarian regimes are based on fear. Acting against such regimes, despite fear, requires discipline.

The idea of freedom is universal but it cannot be achieved just by guaranteeing them in the constitution. Freedom is not about the absence of restrictions and limitations. There is a psychological and moral aspect to freedom as well. In her famous speech 'Freedom from Fear', given in 1990 on being awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which, because of her imprisonment, could not be delivered at the European Parliament, Suu Kyi said: "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it....With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched." It is very evident here that she was addressing her own people, the citizens of Burma, who had been living under authoritarian regimes since 1962. Suu Kyi frequently addresses her own people and sees it as her moral duty and responsibility to transform the 'Burmese mentality' and to educate her people. In this sense, NDL was thus a movement as well not just a political party.

Suu Kyi elucidated on the theme of peace, its indivisibility and how it could be achieved, in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech delivered on June 16, 2012. She explained the Burmese concept of peace "as the happiness arising from the cessation of factors that militate against the harmonious and the wholesome." Peace cannot come when there are "negative forces eating away" at its foundations: "hunger, disease, displacement, joblessness, poverty, injustice, discrimination, prejudice, bigotry" and other such kinds of sufferings and strife. When negative forces are at work anywhere in the world, there can be no peace. Peace thus is interconnected and interrelated. However, it is also a fact that perfect and absolute peace cannot be achieved. But human beings can strive in that direction as they have the capacity to maximize the positive forces of peace and minimize or neutralize the negative forces. The value of kindness or compassion can go a long way in cultivating peace. "To be kind is to respond with sensitivity and human warmth to the hopes and needs of others...Kindness can change the lives of people."20

In Suu Kyi's view, laws are often misused for oppressing people. "In Burmese, the idea is officially expressed as nyein-wut-pi-pyar (quietened - crouched - crushed - flattened)..... She equated law with justice....Drawing on Buddhist precepts, she wrote that the concept of law was based on dhamma, righteousness or virtue, not on the power to impose harsh and inflexible rules on a defenseless people."21 Thus justice had to be seen in the context of laws that were to be made by the elected representatives of the legislature and the same to be implemented by the executive in letter and spirit and not arbitrarily.

Suu Kyi has been endowed with various qualities that have helped shape her nonviolent thought and action. She is a moderate leader, who responds to the changing situation, both in her speech as well as through her deed. She practices what she preaches whether its nonviolence, fearlessness or following democratic traditions and procedures. Additionally, she is patient, disciplined, courageous, and compassionate. Besides displaying all these qualities, Suu Kyi has made several personal sacrifices, which sets her apart. She spent 15 out of the 21 years between August 1989 and November 2010 under either house arrest or imprisonment. During the long periods of house arrest, she was completely cut off from her family and the world outside, not allowed to contact her husband and two sons. After 1995, her husband, Dr. Aris was even denied a visa to Burma. He died of cancer in March 1999 but Suu Kyi was unable to see or visit him. She was offered freedom by the military junta on the condition that she would leave the country but Suu Kyi refused the offer as she feared not being allowed to come back once she left the country. During the lonely periods of incarceration, Kyi listened to the radio many times in a day in order to stay in touch with life and with things going on in the world. These long lonely phases could dampen anybody's spirit and courage but Suu Kyi saw it in a different light: "....I felt that being under house arrest was just part of my job – I was doing my work."22

In spite of being forced to go through a lot of personal suffering, Suu Kyi does not display any hatred towards the junta. In an interview given to Alan Clements, she says "I've always felt that if I really started hating my captors, hating SLORC and the army, I would have defeated myself.......I did not hate them and you cannot really be frightened of people you do not hate. Hate and fear go hand-in- hand."23

When asked about the possibility if the SLORC would face criminal charges once democratic rule is established, Suu Kyi replied, "...truth and reconciliation go together. Once the truth has been admitted, forgiveness is far more possible. Denying the truth will not bring about forgiveness, neither will it dissipate the anger in those who have suffered."24 Suu Kyi often uses the terms, 'justice', 'reconciliation' and 'dialogue' to drive across her viewpoint, which are symptomatic of and reflect the language and idiom of conflict resolution and transformation.

Suu Kyi constantly strives for self improvement and goodness: "I do try to be good. This is the way my mother bought me up."25 And for her, meditation has been a constant source of strength in striving towards that self-improvement. Suu Kyi is humble, balanced and pragmatic; she accepts change and death as a way of life: ".....I do contemplate my death, which means to me an acceptance of the principle of change........If you contemplate your own death, in a sense it means that you accept how unimportant you are......Everybody is essential. But it is a matter of having a balanced view of your place in the world. Having enough respect for yourself to understand that you too have a role to play and at the same time, having enough humility to accept that your role isn't as important as you or some people may think."26 Thus, Suu Kyi, just like Gandhi, often uses spiritual language to explain things and clarify her thoughts and beliefs. She realizes that she is just part of a process and not the process itself. It is because of her strong convictions and courage that the military junta that tortured her followers and her fellow leaders, hesitated to act ruthlessly against her.

Suu Kyi's contribution to the struggle for democracy in Myanmar has been recognized both nationally and internationally. Within Myanmar, people refer to her as 'the lady' or 'Daw Suu'. 'Daw' is a formal title given to her as a mark of respect, which literally means 'aunt'. She received the Rafto Prize and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990. The year after, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights", becoming the first person to be given this award under detention. Her sons received the prize on her behalf. She established a health and education trust for the Burmese people using the Nobel Peace Prize money. On June 16, 2012, Suu Kyi was finally able to deliver her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, more than twenty years after being awarded the same.

The government of India honored Suu Kyi's struggle by awarding her the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1992. The same year she received the International Simon Bolivar Prize from the Venezuelan government. In 2007, the government of Canada made her an honorary citizen of the country. The University of Michigan awarded her the Wallenberg Medal in 2011. In September 2012, Suu Kyi was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by the United States Congress. During the same time, she was also presented the Atlantic Council's Global Citizen Award.

The Challenges before Suu Kyi

Political reforms have been initiated in Myanmar. Recently in April 2012, free and fair elections were held by the present President, Thein Sein. He seems to be genuine and sincere in his efforts to move towards democracy. However, it remains to be seen whether the transition of power from  the military to a democratically elected government will be a smooth and peaceful one or not and if the military will continue to exercise influence over the government? These will be determined only in the next elections which are due in 2015. How Suu Kyi handles the issue of future relations between the army and the government and how she chooses to address the issue of violation of human and political rights by the military will be determining factors. If the army perceives any threat in terms of Nuremberg style of trial, it may strike again. This is, however, highly unlikely given the fact that it would not be acceptable to the international community and secondly, the Myanmar economy being in shambles, it cannot do without monetary aid and foreign investments. If the army tries to seize power again, international aid will not be forthcoming.

A major challenge before Suu Kyi would be to keep the minorities within Myanmar and to initiate a process of reconciliation between the minorities and the Burmese majority. However, until now she has failed to directly address the issue of national unity. Her often repeated answer is that “once civil government was established it would not be difficult to resolve this question."27 This has been interpreted by Josef Silverstein in the following terms: “...the organization of a Burman-dominated polity first, then, after the constitution is written, begin negotiating with the minorities. With no say or participation in the parliament at the outset, the minorities will not be equal partners in the future state of Burma.”28 Silverstein is thus critical of Suu Kyi and charges her with departing “as far as possible from the thinking of her father when this issue seized the nation at its birth. His goal was a federal state in which the minorities were full partners from the outset, sharing in governing the country before independence, in writing the constitution, and in the nation’s future, whatever it may be.”29

Suu Kyi has given some serious thought to the question of the economy - whether economic development should be given preference over political growth. Here, she is clear that only material prosperity cannot lead to happiness. Development should include not just economic growth but also empowerment of the people. Participation of the people in the transformation of the socio-political process thus is the key.

When democracy is reinstated in Myanmar, will Suu Kyi occupy any position? This is a critical question and there are no clear answers. Suu Kyi somewhat revealed her stance on this issue towards the end of August 1988 when she said, “A life of politics holds no attraction for me. At the moment, I serve as a kind of unifying force because of my father ’s name and because I am not interested in settling for any kind of position.”30 However, as far as having a leadership role in the future is concerned, it is likely that she will go by the decision of the people, who would want her to head the government as they “believe that she is the one who can set them on a new course.”31 Being a responsible person, she is likely to humbly accept this responsibility, when the time comes (health is likely to be a major determinant in this decision) but it is one thing to lead movements and quite another to deal with issues of real politick. This only time will tell for “...until she is given the chance to use her new-found skills at democratic politics in the crucible of parliamentary politics and bears the responsibility for her decisions, no one will know if she is destined to lead Burma toward a new and better life than its people have had, or if she will be forced to compromise and accept the realities of Burma that have developed over the past 42 years.”32

Thus the list of challenges before Suu Kyi is a long one. There are huge expectations from her for “Burmese people have been in search of leadership since the death of Aung San and many believe that they have found it in his daughter.”33 Therefore her biggest challenge remains to be able to meet these expectations of the Burmese people. In meeting these expectations, it remains to be seen if she continues to follow her principles of non-violence and takes along all the citizens of Myanmar with her. That will be her real test.

Notes and References:

   1. John Kane, The Politics of  Moral Capital (Cambridge: Cambridge University  Press, 2001), p. 147.
   2. Ibid., p. 151.
   3. Josef Silverstein, “Aung San Suu Kyi: Â Is she Burma’s Woman of Destiny?”, Asian Survey, Vol. 30, No. 10, October 1990, p. 1012.
   4. John Kane, op,cit,, p. 147.
   5. Ibid.
   6. Derek Tonkin, “The 1990 Elections in Myanmar: Broken Promises or a Failure of Communication”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 29, No. 1, April 2007, p. 37.
   7. Ibid., p. 49.
   8. Alan Clements, “Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma’s Gandhi”, On the Issues Magazine, Fall 1998. Online version, Accessed on August 12, 2012.
   9. Kyaw Yin Hlaing,  “Myanmar in 2003: Frustration and Despair?”, Asian Survey, Vol. 44, No. 1, January/February  2004, p. 89.
  10. John Kane, op.cit., p. 153.
  11. David Hardiman, Gandhi in his time and ours: The Global legacy of his ideas (London, Hurst & Company p. 299.
  12. Robert H Taylor, The State in Myanmar, Foundation Books, New Delhi; 2009, p. 408.
  13. Ward Keeler, ‘Book Review’ of ‘Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy’ by Gustaaf Houtman, American Ethnologist, Vol. 28, No. 1, February 2001, pp. 220-221.
  14. John Kane, The Politics of Moral Capital; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; 2001, p. 154.
  15. Aung San Suu Kyi, ‘In Quest for Democracy’ in Michael Aris (ed.), Freedom from Fear and Other Writings, Penguin Books, London, 1991, p. 178.
  16. Alan Clements, ‘Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma’s Gandhi’, On the Issues Magazine, Fall 1998.Online version, accessed on August 12, 2012. Available on
  17. Ibid.
  18. Josef Silverstein, ‘The Idea of Freedom in Burma and the Political Thought of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 69, No. 2, Summer 1996, p. 225.
  19. “Speech at Shwedagon Pagoda,” Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear, p. 200.
  20. Aung San Suu Kyi, ‘Nobel Lecture’, June 16, 2012, Oslo. Accessed on August 15, 2012.
  21. Josef Silverstein, ‘The Idea of Freedom in Burma and the Political Thought of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 69, No. 2, Summer 1996, p. 225.
  22. Alan Clements, ‘Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma’s Gandhi’, On the Issues Magazine, Fall 1998. Online version accessed on August 12, 2012.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid., p. 1017.
  28. Ibid., p. 1018.
  29. Ibid.
  30. The Times, London, 30 August, 1988.
  31. Josef Silverstein, ‘Aung  San Suu Kyi:  Is she Burma’s Woman of Destiny?’, Asian Survey, Vol. 30, No. 10, October 1990, p. 1019.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.

Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol. 34, No. 3 & 4, July-December 2012

* KAUSHIKEE is Assistant Professor, Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution
Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi - 110025. Email:[email protected]

Category :- Gandhiana