Saturday 21 June 2008

Suu Kyi's struggle for Burma

To highlight Refugee Week, and in light of calls for a public flogging of pro-democracy campaigner and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's detained opposition leader's plight gained worldwide notice, following the country's recent devastating Cyclone that killed 120,000 people.

Last month, Myanmar's military junta extended Suu Kyi's house arrest for another year. On Thursday, she spent her 63rd birthday in prison.

Dennis Guild, James Cook University's Post Grad president, tells about the struggle of this amazing campaigner.

The last time I saw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s General Secretary for the National League for Democracy, was in 1996.

Suu Kyi was then under house arrest, but this did not stop her from addressing a crowd of thousands who came regularly to hear her ‘voice of hope’ every Saturday outside her house on University Avenue in Rangoon.

Suu Kyi looked at ease as she spoke to a crowd that obviously adored her. It was easy to understand why the Burmese people love her. At one stage, she turned around and looked directly at me with a gentle smile.

Although I understood little Burmese, I recognized names such as Gandhi and Mandela peppered throughout her speech. It was then that I decided I would like to learn more about this ‘lady of democracy’, the National League for Democracy, and why the Junta, which overwhelmingly lost the democratic vote back in 1990, has not respected the ‘voice’ of the people.

I returned to Burma in 2003. In my seven years absence, Rangoon, the tree- adorned capital, dotted with splendid, sparkling, golden, Buddhist pagodas - visible from the stratosphere in passing aircraft, had managed to retain its charm, elegance and innocence.

In Rangoon, you will not find much in the way of flashing neon signage. While it does have its peak hour, Rangoon’s streets are never too crowded. The perpetual toot of the horn can be heard, mixed with the mantra of ‘peanut, peanut, peanut’ from a street seller and the chatter of Rangoonians enjoying tea at ‘child size’ tables and chairs on the sidewalk. Sounds of chanting in a nearby temple, and the shuffling of velvet-lined Burmese slippers shuffling across broken footpaths smeared with the red ochre of ‘kunya’ - betel nut juice.

Into the jungle of bureaucracy

“No, you cannot buy tickets for Bhamo, it is out of bounds for foreigners,” declared the official behind the counter at Myanma Airways. “I do believe you are mistaken Sir, the Lonely Planet says Bhamo is now open, you must sell us a ticket,” I insisted.

The official examined the guidebook carefully, showed his superiors, before returning to declare, “I am sorry Sir, you must gain a permit from the ministry of defence (30 km taxi trip from the city).” “Can I speak with the manager please,” I asked.

Minutes later, I’m being directed outside the building, along Strand Road, and back inside another building, that backs onto the same building I have just left. A tall thin man, wearing a long dark green tartan longyi (sarong) motioned me to sit at a nest of rattan chairs outside an official looking office. I sat and patiently waited for the arrival of the manager. Finally, a man dressed in army uniform entered from the street. He asked, “Why do you want to travel to Bhamo?”“ I want to catch the ferry to Mandalay,” I replied. Our eyes met. “OK, I will authorize the tickets,” he said. As we left, I enquired, “And who may you be?” He said, “U Kyaw Myint, Burma’s Deputy Minister for Transport.”

Bhamo is situated some 50 kilometres from the Chinese Border on the banks of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River in Kachin State. Foreigners are forbidden to travel more than five kilometres from the city centre. Forbidden perhaps because January is poppy season, when the flowers open to reveal an orb that is lanced to extract opium.

A local we spoke to told of people who simply disappeared if they opposed the rule of the junta; their relatives are imprisoned. Similar tales of intimidation were echoed throughout our journey on the road to Mandalay, Bagan and Taunggyi. A human rights worker in Mandalay spoke of the daily struggle to buy food. She said a hotel worker was jailed, just for dining with Westerners, and on release, forbidden to work in the industry again.

An academic in Taunggyi likened Australia’s constructive engagement with the junta to ‘watering a poisonous plant’. He said Australia (Howard government) was wasting its time and money on a regime that was not committed to political reconciliation. “There will be no improvement in Burma without regime change – change that will require outside intervention.” Ms Suu Kyi seemingly agreed when she referred to the Australian sponsored human rights program designed to improve rights for Burmese as ‘a fox looking after the chickens’ as most involved in the program were from the military.

Meeting Suu Kyi

Back in Rangoon, we looked forward to our meeting with Ms Suu Kyi. Under the shadow of the majestic Shwedagon pagoda, the NLD headquarters on Shwegon Road is inconspicuous – a teak shop on one side and a residence on the other. Across the road small shops in among trees are usually staked out by military intelligence, ready with their Nikon cameras and walkie-talkies.

The atmosphere inside is electric, noble and nervous. A young man approached us smiling, reached into his pocket, and ‘awarded’ us NLD badges (depicting the golden peacock and Ms Suu Kyi) pinned to our lapels. He informed us sadly that Ms Suu Kyi was in hospital that day undergoing an operation so we couldn’t see her. But we were quite welcome to interview her spokesman, Mr U Lwin.

While we waited, we learned that the NLD headquarters also served as a venue for social service provision. Some 100 babies come monthly to be weighed, fed and given vitamins while their parents receive tuition on early childcare. One volunteer mentioned that almost half the children in Burma suffer from malnutrition. The NLD also conducts bi-weekly adult/children education classes.

An elderly man in his late 70s appeared and slowly, and with the aid of a walking stick, made his way up the teak staircase. Mr U Lwin had arrived. We were summoned to join him in his office. His English was polished as he spoke at length about the years of struggle and oppression endured by the Burmese people. “The NLD has tried to engage the junta in dialogue regarding peaceful negotiations and reconciliation but these have been sabotaged by the regime,” Mr U Lwin said. “Ms Suu Kyi’s latest attempt at engaging ASEAN leaders as possible arbitrators was fruitless, as the junta cancelled Malaysian PM Mahathir’s meeting with her late last year.”

The next day we returned to the NLD office and were fortunate to be able to talk to U Tin U (Oo), Vice Chairman of NLD. Mr U Tin U (also currently under house arrest) assured us we were in no danger as Australia and China had most favoured nation status with the junta. “They won’t touch you,” he said. Appropriately, like the lawyer he had become, he spoke vehemently of the 1,200 Burmese imprisoned for their political beliefs. Mr Tin U was highly critical of Australia’s on-going ‘constructive’ engagement with the regime, criticism he said the Australian ambassador in Rangoon agrees with.

“The problem is, this program of the Australian Government makes a lot of people outside Burma think that the junta is doing everything in accordance with the universal declaration of human rights, but this is not accurate, as underneath there is a lot of oppression and many violations of human rights.” We enquired into the health of Ms Suu Kyi who had been operated on the previous day, and Mr Tin U assured us that she was OK. “Ms Suu Kyi is fine; her operation was a mere removal of a corn from one of her toes.”

I have since visited Burma in 2005 where I travelled to Kengtung and Tachilek in 2008. The oppression for the Burmese people remains forcing many to take refuge in Thailand where there are more than 150,000 Burmese in refugee camps, and where more than 2 million survive as migrant workers.Ms Suu Kyi remains under house arrest (which has been extended for another year) in Rangoon where she has not been allowed to see her doctor since January and survives in a house that was badly damaged by Cyclone Nargis.

Last Thursday, 19th of June, was her 63rd birthday. Let’s hope the world will place principle before profit and help free Ms Suu Kyi and her people before her 64th birthday.

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