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Benedict Rogers

Let us not forget Myanmar's imprisoned icon

While the global community is disappointed in Aung San Suu Kyi, abandoning the people of Myanmar cannot be justified
Published: June 20, 2022 10:01 AM GMT

Updated: June 20, 2022 10:18 AM GMT

Let us not forget Myanmar's imprisoned icon

Yesterday, a woman who should be well into the second year of her second term as head of her country’s government instead spent her 77th birthday in prison. Little is known of her whereabouts or well-being, but if the trajectory remains as it is in her country, she looks set to spend her remaining years in captivity.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent many previous birthdays in detention, but when she was released from house arrest in November 2010, elected to parliament in 2012 and led her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to an overwhelming victory in 2015, it looked as though such days were behind her. Indeed, for five years she was at the pinnacle of Myanmar’s political system, working with — and covering for — the military that had repressed her and her people for so many decades.

On Feb. 1 last year, the commander-in-chief of the army, General Min Aung Hlaing, disappointed that he had not won at the ballot box and bitter that she had been re-elected with such a huge mandate in November 2020, seized power in a military coup that turned the clock back by a decade, reversing all reforms and plunging Myanmar back into brutal conflict, economic crisis, humanitarian disaster and a human rights catastrophe. That coup landed Suu Kyi back in detention, with multiple fabricated charges and trials that are likely to ensure she never sees freedom — and certainly not public office — again.

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There are three aspects of this quasi-Shakespearean tragedy that are especially heartbreaking.

The first is that her birthday used to be remembered, and now it is barely mentioned.

During her years under house arrest throughout much of the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century — 15 years in total, although in three periods from 1989-95, 2000-02 and 2003-10 — we always marked Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday. On June 19 each year, campaigners for democracy in Myanmar would hold protests outside Myanmar’s embassies and events with the Myanmar diaspora. Candlelit vigils, photo exhibitions, prayers and birthday cakes were expected. June 19 was always a day not only to remember a courageous democracy heroine under house arrest but an opportunity to shine a light on the desperate plight of her country.

Her international reputation plummeted, and the fragile trust which Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities may have put in her was shattered. And that is not forgotten

Now that she is back in detention, why do we seldom speak of her? There is only one reason: her tarnished record in government.

During the decade of reform in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi made what initially was regarded as a brave and gracious decision to extend the hand of friendship to her former captors, to forgive them, work with them and share power together, but later it was regarded as a sell-out.

Initially, it had the echoes of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. And yet, unlike in South Africa, the dictators were more reluctant to leave the stage, and the former democracy heroine was co-opted into being an accomplice to genocide and crimes against humanity. That, at least, became the narrative, and her eagerness to defend her generals at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019 did not help her cause.

Her international reputation plummeted, and the fragile trust which Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities may have put in her was shattered. And that is not forgotten.

The second aspect of her drama is the tragic price which she and her family have paid.

Her husband, Michael Aris, died of cancer in 1999 after insisting that she should not leave Myanmar to visit him. She agreed. They both knew that while the military junta might let her out of the country, they almost certainly would not let her back in, and they agreed together that she should not jeopardize her role leading Myanmar’s newly birthed democracy movement. As a consequence, she has been separated from her sons for much of the past three decades and could not be with her husband as he lay dying in hospital.

While such a high human cost can never be described as “worthwhile,” between 2012 and 2021 there was at least some sense that her years of sacrifice were beginning to lead to a turning of the page for Myanmar. Now, all that has gone and she must be asking what has been achieved? The answer, as we look at it today, is almost nothing, as Myanmar is again in the clutches of brutal military dictatorship.

And the third part of the tragedy is the bloodshed and heartache which yet again is ripping Myanmar apart. Churches burned, villages bombed and, according to the United Nations, more than one million people displaced.

On June 9, the Kachin people marked the 11th anniversary of the resumption of their civil war with the Myanmar military which has resulted in 120,000 civilians displaced over 170 camps in northern Myanmar and a major human rights and humanitarian crisis.

The junta’s relentless attacks on children underscore the generals’ depravity and willingness to inflict immense suffering on innocent victims in its attempt to subjugate the people of Myanmar

Nine days before her birthday, United Nations experts expressed their concerns about the impending execution of two of Aung San Suu Kyi’s close pro-democracy allies, Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zeya Thaw. “The illegitimate military junta is providing the international community with further evidence of its disregard for human rights as it prepares to hang pro-democracy activists. These death sentences, handed down by an illegitimate court of an illegitimate junta, are a vile attempt at instilling fear amongst the people of Myanmar,” the experts said.

Five days before Daw Suu’s birthday, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, sounded the alarm about the military’s targeting of children.

“The junta’s relentless attacks on children underscore the generals’ depravity and willingness to inflict immense suffering on innocent victims in its attempt to subjugate the people of Myanmar. The international community’s approach to the coup and the junta’s atrocities has failed. States must take immediate coordinated action to address an escalating political, economic and humanitarian crisis that is putting Myanmar’s children at risk of becoming a lost generation,” he said in his latest report.

Myanmar is in the midst of a humanitarian and human rights disaster, and the world is eerily silent. There are two plausible reasons for the world’s silence and inaction, both understandable but neither justifiable or excusable.

The first, of course, is that the international community is preoccupied with many other challenges: the war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis, post-Covid recovery, climate change.

The second is that the world gave up on Myanmar because it lost faith in Aung San Suu Kyi.

Both are flimsy excuses.

While of course the war in Ukraine dominates our thoughts, especially because of the threats Vladimir Putin poses to the rest of Europe, and of course the fuel crisis, the cost of living crisis, the food crisis, the transport crisis and indeed the crisis of leadership in the Western world are all uppermost in our thoughts, they do not give us permission to turn a blind eye to genocide, crimes against humanity in Southeast Asia, nor do they permit us to ignore the unravelling of a country whose fledgling democratization we heralded and encouraged. A failed state in Myanmar, wrought by civil war, is in no one’s interests and cannot be justified. Furthermore, when the illegal regime in Myanmar is propped up and armed by Beijing and Moscow, it requires our attention.

And while, of course, most of us are disappointed in Aung San Suu Kyi, abandoning the people of Myanmar is not the answer.

Let me make two key points here.

First, whatever our disagreements and disappointments with her are, nothing justifies a coup, and nothing justifies her imprisonment.

But we should not put all our hope in one human being alone because, as we know, they can disappoint as well as inspire

If we have issues with her handling of the Rohingya genocide, or the conflicts with Myanmar’s other ethnic nationalities, as I do — very profoundly — then the correct response would be to debate them with her and hold her to account as an elected government leader. It is not to overthrow her electoral mandate in a coup and imprison her, and it is not to shrug our shoulders at such a travesty. Whatever we may think about her, this is not about her. It is about Myanmar, its people, their rights and their future. The people of Myanmar elected Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. She should not be spending her 77th birthday in prison.

But second, we must learn lessons from this.

One individual can do a lot to inspire, to mobilize, to light a flame, to lead. Throughout history, they often have: Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Timor-Leste’s Xanana Gusmao, Jose Ramos-Horta and Bishop Belo, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Wilberforce, Pope St. John Paul II and so many others. But we should not put all our hope in one human being alone because, as we know, they can disappoint as well as inspire. We should be inspired by the things that inspire us, learn lessons from the mistakes that others make, and above all recognize that any movement of change is a collective effort, drawing on the contributions, hard work, courage and sacrifice of many. And we must know that where some lead, others will follow; and when some fade, others will take on the mantle.

It is no coincidence that as well as being Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday yesterday, it was also Father’s Day. My father died two years ago, and I miss him profoundly. He inspires me still, with his integrity, humility, hard work and quiet leadership. And yesterday was also my nephew’s ninth birthday. He inspires me with his smile, humor, talent, kindness, hopefulness and as a symbol of the future. But yesterday was also celebrated as the feast of Corpus Christi — the day when we mark the importance of the Body and Blood of Christ. That is the celebration of the one and only individual who can and does change the world but who does so by bringing us together in communion, as one body.

And to bring it back to the personal and her birthday, let me say this: I have had the privilege of meeting Aung San Suu Kyi several times. She is not easy, I did not always agree with her, but she should not be in jail and we should be once again demanding her release.

As we reflect on Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday yesterday, let us pray for her and for the people of Myanmar, let us resolve not to allow her or Myanmar to be forgotten, and let us move forward to the future, renewed in our determination to continue the fight to see — at long last — true peace, real justice and genuine freedom for Myanmar and all its peoples.

* Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW, co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign. He is the author of six books, including three books about Myanmar, especially his latest, ‘Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads. His faith journey is told in his book ‘From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church’ (Gracewing, 2015). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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