Excerpts from the book
LETTERS FROM BURMA (1996)
by Aung San Suu Kyi
IMPORTANT NOTICE: Please buy Suu Kyi’s books. You will surely enjoy her engaging prose and the books fine illustrations. And you will help her and her party in their long struggle against the Myanmar’s military rulers that stubbornly oppose democracy and human rights.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of the struggle for human rights and democracy in Burma. Born in 1945 as the daughter of Burma’s national hero Aung San, she was two years old when he was assassinated, just before Burma gained the independence to which he had dedicated his life. After receiving her education in Rangoon, Delhi and at Oxford University, Aung San Suu Kyi then worked at the United Nations in New York and Bhutan. For most of the following twenty years she was occupied raising a family in England (her husband was British), before returning to Burma in 1988 to care for her dying mother. Her return coincided with the outbreak of a spontaneous revolt against 26 years of political repression and economic decline. Aung San Suu Kyi (‘Suu’ to her friends and family) quickly emerged as the most effective and articulate leader of the movement, and the party she founded went on to win a colossal electoral victory in May 1990, even though she had been put under house arrest in July 1989. After the election the military rulers refused to transfer power to a civilian government as it had promised, and kept Aung San Suu Kyi under arrest until July 1995.
Aung San Sun Kyi is an honorary fellow of Oxford University. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In its citation the Norwegian Nobel Committee stated that in awarding the Prize to Aung San Suu Kyi, it wished ‘to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means’. Aung San Suu Kyi is also author of several books, including Freedom from Fear and The Voice of Hope.
YOUNG BIRDS OUTSIDE CAGES
Throughout the years of my house arrests my family was living in a free society [England] and I could rest assured that they were economically secure and safe from any kind of persecution. The vast majority of my colleagues who were imprisoned did not have the comfort of such an assurance. They knew well that their families were in an extremely vulnerable position, in constant danger of interrogation, house searches, general harassment and interference with their means of livelihood. For those prisoners with young children it was particularly difficult.
In Burma a number of political prisoners who were put in jail for their part in the democracy movement were kept there without trial for more than two years. Only after they were tried and sentenced were they allowed family visits: once a fortnight, -for a mere fifteen minutes.
I was not the only woman political detainee in Burma: there have been – and there still remain – a number of other women imprisoned for their political beliefs. Some of these women had young children who suddenly found themselves in the care of fathers worried sick for their wives and totally unused to running a household.
When the parents are released from prison it is still not the end of the story. The children suffer from a gnawing anxiety that their fathers or mothers might once again be taken away. They have known what it is like to be young birds fluttering helplessly outside the cages that shut their parents away from them.
There is nothing to compare with the courage of ordinary people whose names are unknown and whose sacrifices pass unnoticed. The courage that dares without recognition, without the protection of media attention, is a courage that humbles and inspires and reaffirms our faith in humanity. Such courage I have seen years after years.
LAW AND ORDER
Hospitality is no longer simple in Burma. Staying overnight in a house other than your own involves more than friendship, good conversation and a cool mat. Visitors must make up their minds before too late an hour if they intend to stay the night, because their presence has to be reported to the local Law and Order Restoration Council (LORC) before nine o’clock in the evening. Failure to ‘report the guest list’ could result in a fine or a prison sentence for both the guest and the host. Nobody may go away for the night from his own home without informing the local LORC as well as the LORC of the place where he will be staying. The authorities have the right to check at any time during the night to see if there are any unreported guests or if any of the members of the family are missing. Households which shelter members of the NLD or their supporters tend to be subjected to frequent ‘guest checks’ these days.
SOME RECENT HISTORY
In 1947, on 19 July, six months before Burma was officially declared a sovereign independent nation, my father and several of his colleagues were assassinated while a meeting of the Executive Council was in session. The crime was arranged by an envious politician.
On March 1962, the democratically elected government was removed by a military coup. The students of Rangoon University did not respond favourably to the establishment of military rule. Events took a nasty turn on 7 July, when soldiers were ordered to open fire on the students. It was officially declared that only sixteen students had been killed, but there are claims that the number of dead was well over one hundred. The tragedy of Rangoon University culminated at dawn the next morning: the Students’ Union building was dynamited by order of the authorities and reduced to rubble. Some say the building was still full of students, all of whom were killed in the blast.
Many years later, on 23 July 1988, as a result again of student unrest, the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), which had dominated the country for a quarter of a century, held an emergency Congress in which the top leaders of the BSPP resigned. But within a matter of days it became clear that the new administration had no intention of abolishing one-party dictatorship. Again the people of Burma poured out on to the streets in a great, spontaneous demonstration of their desire for a governing system that would respect their will.
But it is never easy to convince those who have acquired power forcibly of the wisdom of peaceful change. On the night of 8 August the army moved to crush the demonstrations, shooting down thousands of unarmed people. The killings went on for four days, but the demonstrations continued, and the new president also resigned. On 18 September a new military junta assumed power, with what has often been described as an Orwellian title: the State Law and Order Restoration Council or SLORC.
The SLORC proclaimed that it would establish multi-party democracy in Burma within a short period of time. More than 200 parties registered, among them the National League for Democracy (NLD). From the very beginning the path the NLD had to tread was far from smooth. The enthusiastic support of the public brought upon the party the unfriendly attention of the authorities.
The elections of May 1990 were hailed as one of the freest and fairest ever, and the NLD won 82 per cent of the seats [with more than 60 percent of the popular vote]. But as this was not the result SLORC had expected, it decided to forget its earlier promise and indicated that the new job of the elected representatives was only to draw up a constitution. Furthermore, later SLORC proceeded to organize a National Convention in which less than one fifth of the delegates were the elected representatives of the people.