By Nick Gier
The Burmese National League for Democracy (NLD) is celebrating a huge election victory. Early results show that the NLD has already won 256 of 299 seats, and it is expected to win 75 percent of the positions in the 440-seat Parliament.
In 1990 Aung San Suu Kyi led the NLD to an 82 percent election landslide, but the military intervened and placed her under house arrest. Suu Kyi has spent 15 of the last 25 years in prison or confined at home, where she devoted herself to correspondence, reading, and Buddhist practice.
As a young woman, Suu Kyi studied Gandhi in New Delhi, where her mother was Burma’s ambassador to India. One letter from the 1990s shows Gandhi’s influence: “Politics is about people, and love and truth can move people more strongly than any form of coercion.” One writer called her a “pragmatic” but “strongly committed Gandhian.”
In 1991 Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “her unflagging efforts for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means.” The military government refused to allow her to travel to accept the award, and she had to wait until June of 2012 to give her acceptance speech in Oslo.
In her Nobel speech she referred to the “communal violence resulting in arson and murder” in Burma’s Rakhine province. This conflict, in which as many as a 1,000 Muslims have been killed, is part of a long history of persecution of Burma’s Muslim minority.
Suu Kyi has praised the work of the police and Burmese security forces. But a UN Nations special envoy on human rights countered this by saying he had witnessed government authorities “standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organized ultranationalist Buddhist mobs.”
Regrettably, Suu Kyi agrees with the military government, which has ruled that 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims are not Burmese citizens, even though most of their ancestors have been living in the country for centuries. In her book Freedom from Fear Suu Kyi acknowledges not only the presence of medieval Muslim traders but great Islamic kingdoms in her country’s past.
The government has decided that the Rohingya, although they have voted in the past, now do not have that right; and Suu Kyi has not raised any objection to this outrage. She carefully vetted the 1,000 plus NLD candidates and not a single Muslim was among them.
In her Nobel speech Suu Kyi spoke about Buddha’s focus on human suffering—its causes and the way to alleviate it. She then said: “Wherever suffering is ignored, there will be the seeds of conflict, for suffering degrades and embitters and enrages.” A reporter from The Economist quotes one critic saying that, especially with regard to the Rohingyas, she “has lost touch with the suffering of the people.”
In 2008 the military government wrote a new Constitution, and Article 59 prohibits any Burmese citizen with foreign relatives from becoming president. The target of this provision was obvious: Suu Kyi married a British man and her two sons hold British passports.
The Burmese Constitution also reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military appointees, and gives them the right to veto any proposed constitutional amendment. Suu Kyi’s party, however, will form a coalition with small ethnic parties and she will be elected as Speaker of Parliament. This super majority will then be able to elect Burma’s new president. Suu Kyi already has someone in mind.
Just before the election Suu Kyi declared that “I’m going to be the leader of government whether or not I’m the president.” She’s daring the military to repeat their coup after the 1990 election, but a military spokesman assured her that won’t happen. She is now confident that she can persuade the military to abolish Article 59.
Burma expert Maung Zarni observes that Suu Kyi “is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She’s a politician with her eyes fixed on the prize, which is the majority Buddhist vote.”
For Suu Kyi the Buddhist ethics of truth and loving-kindness has been supplanted by a strong desire for political power. She is certainly pragmatic but no longer a committed Gandhian. “The Lady,” as she is affectionately known by her devotees, has become “The Iron Lady.”
Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. This column has been drawn from Chapter 4 of Gier’s The Origins of Religious Violence: An Asian Perspective (Lexington Books, 2014).
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