Myanmar: Dreams Lying in Open Graves and Up in Flames

Thursday, September 21 is the United Nations International Day of Peace. And here I am, “reblogging” myself. It is a seven year-old post. Yes, it’s odd, I am conceding. However, it’s for a reason: I am ashamed.

I am ashamed, and embarrassed, that I wrote the blog post below, rejoicing at the release of Aung San Suu Kyi on November 13, 2010. I expressed great hope for the future of Myanmar in this blog post, and great faith in this slight figure with the calm, cool gaze who personified the fight for human rights and democracy in this land with a dark past of war, oppression and suffering.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi.

I guess I was not to know how things would turn out. When Aung San Suu Kyi was freed and Myanmar already appeared to be taking a few shuffling steps away from its harsh militaristic past and out into the light, so to speak, many of us rushed with open arms. Here was hope, people thought. We all welcomed it happily, as one often grasps at “good news.” But it was not to be. We were too premature. Several years later, it has ended in disillusion.

But it has not ended for the Rohingya Muslims. A friend sent me a video, which she insisted I watch… A group of soldiers walk towards a large wooden dwelling house. A women in a veil sitting on a step outside tries to calm a crying baby, rocking it in her arms; a girl sits beside her. A young, smooth-faced soldier, expressionless, lights a cigarette and stares, unblinking, into the camera. On the road just behind him, another soldier hits two young men on the back of their heads with a heavy stick; you can hear the sound of it striking their bodies. The young men run. There is silence, apart from the cheeping of birds. Rohingya sit on the ground in rows, heads bowed. Beyond the soldier’s face, cigarette in mouth, eyes empty, more beatings take place… Another video shows people lying together in a grave. The soldiers above them, chatting casually, fire shots into the grave until they don’t move any more. The soldiers pour petrol on their bodies. They throw some bags and belongings on top of them, light matches; the fire breathes, and all is quiet.

Fleeing Rohingya Muslims. (Photo: EPA/Stringer)

I wonder if Aung San Suu Kyi has seen any of these videos, and heard the reports? The UN head Antonio Guterres has just observed that, as Myanmar’s de facto leader now, she “has a last chance” to prevent the military from continuing its persecution of the Rohingya. But she is stubbornly refusing to accept the idea of “ethnic cleansing” and has even said that these horrible reports are what we call nowadays fake news, encouraged by terrorists. She has never visited the Rohingya areas. (Can we even be speaking about ethnic cleansing and a Nobel Peace Prize winner in the same breath?)

How depressing it is. But then, Myanmar is a complex country, and it is all too easy to condemn (and to praise) what we don’t have a full understanding of. Lessons learned.

Well, here is the praise I heaped on her at the time. It fills me with sadness to read my article, headlined “Celebrity.” I also wrote about Aung San Suu Kyi and two other Nobel Peace Prize winners: Liu Xiaobo, who died on 13 July, and who was unable to receive the Prize because he was serving an eleven-year sentence in a Chinese prison; and Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer, former judge and human rights activist, who was the first female Muslim recipient of the Prize. Here’s my blog post:

…The release, on the evening of November 13, of the Burmese icon of democracy Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the Petchary referred to in an earlier blog post on Nobel Peace Prize winners who are unrecognized, even reviled, in their native land.

There is no doubt.  Aung San Suu Kyi is a celebrity, but quietly so.  Her exuberant and devoted supporters are always the ones making the noise. “We haven’t seen each other for so long, I have so much to tell you,” she told the thousands of adoring ones on the day of her release.  She sounded more like someone who had just returned from an exciting overseas trip, talking to her best friend.  It is this direct simplicity that is most beguiling. President Obama’s“personal hero” is calm, firm, with a deliciously sweet smile and a cool, almost stern gaze.

But then, she comes from strong stock.  Her father, General Aung San, commander of the Burmese Independence Army, had met and married his nurse, Ma Khin Kyi, in 1942 in the hospital where he was recovering from wounds received during his march into Burma.  Five years later, when Aung San Suu Kyi was only two years old, he was assassinated.  Her mother became a prominent public figure and was named Burma’s Ambassador to India, where Suu Kyi went to high school.  She then went on to Oxford University (St. Hugh’s College, where she studied Politics, Philosophy & Economics).  She met her husband Michael Aris there (he died of prostate cancer in London in 1999 and was not allowed to return to Burma to see his wife before he died).  Remaining in Burma was one of the huge sacrifices she made – if she left, she knew she would never be able to return.

We forget that Suu Kyi was an intellectual, who studied, lectured and published books in New York and London.  A cosmopolitan woman, who moved in somewhat privileged circles.  She did not become an activist until 1988, during the upheavals and vicious suppression of thousands by the Burmese military.

She was first placed under house arrest the following year.  How strange, one feels, to be imprisoned in one’s own home, the same old-fashioned villa inherited from her father the General.  The house almost became a part of her – its balconies and railings and shrubs, and the street outside where her admirers gathered.

Now, life has become much more complicated for Suu Kyi.  After being detained for fifteen of the past twenty-one years, she has to try to unravel some of the twisted skeins of Burmese politics.  Most importantly, she has to figure out who her allies are; some of them are strong and vocal and appear to be genuinely supportive.  And who are her potential enemies; some of these are seemingly sitting on the fence, others are making deals with her political opponents.

In the few interviews she has given, it is clear that she is sizing things up carefully.  Her words are well chosen, but one thing she has always made clear, and continues to do so: she believes in non-violence.

Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi would be proud of her.

Aung Sung Suu Kyi
Aung Sung Suu Kyi gazes from the window of her house, where she was imprisoned for a total of around 15 years.


2 thoughts on “Myanmar: Dreams Lying in Open Graves and Up in Flames

    1. I have to regrettably also withdraw that support. It’s rather a bitter lesson to learn, isn’t it. Even though the military clearly still hold sway – there is no excuse…


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