Aung San Suu Kyi in India

By Tp Saran

Elegance, grace, beauty, serenity, goodness, poise, charm: taken together, these words were still inadequate to capture the total impression that Aung San Suu Kyi made, as we watched her on NDTV delivering the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, and being interviewed while on her week-long tour of India.

Her language bore the stamp of her education at Oxford University, where she enrolled in 1964 and graduated BA in philosophy, politics and economics from St Hugh’s College in 1967, and was elected Honorary Fellow in 1990.

She also studied and researched in India, first at Delhi University in 1960, when she was 15 years old and accompanied her mother, who was appointed as Burmese ambassador to India and Nepal; then in 1987 as a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Simla. She has also been research scholar at Kyoto University, Japan, and at the Ministry of External Affairs in Bhutan, and has worked at the UN in New York.

Daughter of Burma’s independence hero, Aung San, who was assassinated when she was only two years old, she took up where her father left as it were, and became not only a symbol but the most prominent activist of Burma’s struggle for democracy. For that she has paid the heaviest price that one can imagine, being held in detention for nearly 15 years, most of it under house arrest, until her release on 13th November 2010.

In the intervening period she and her fellow activists of the National League for Democracy (NLD) have suffered violence and arrest at the hands of Burma’s military junta. But she continued her struggle undeterred, despite all the restrictions that the regime imposed on her, separating her from her family, husband Michael Aris and two sons. Most cruelly, she was not even allowed to go to England and attend on him when he was terminally ill with cancer.

She has won several human rights prizes, culminating in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Although she was personally banned from standing for general elections in 1990, her NLD won 82% of the seats, but the generals refused to accept the results. Finally, despite several such bans, after her release she stood for and won a seat in the by-election of April 1, 2012, with the NLD obtaining 43 out of the 45 seats contested. Subsequently she met President Thein Sein for the second time and in May she visited Thailand, the first time she had left Burma in 24 years. In June she made a three-week tour of Europe visiting Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, UK and France, also the first time she was able to travel to Europe in 24 years.

And on July 25 Aung San Suu Kyi made her first speech in Parliament.

Truly a legend even in her lifetime, her language and the powerful messages she sent in the course of her lecture fully reflected her political and ethical convictions, and her sufferings and relentless struggle, even as she sincerely and almost affectionately acknowledged that her sources of inspiration were Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The following extract from that lecture illustrates the point:

‘Today, I wish to thank you for the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Prize that was awarded to me in 1995, the year that I was released from my first term of house arrest. The links between the independence movements of our two countries and my personal ties to India imbued the prize with a special meaning for me. The thoughts and actions of the leaders of the Indian independence movement provided me with ideas and inspiration. Our movement for democracy in Burma is firmly rooted in the principle of non-violence that Gandhi made into an effective political force even against the most powerful opponents. His influence on my political thinking is widely recognized. The influence of Jawaharlal Nehru on my life in politics is less well known.’

She went on to talk lengthily about how she and her mother came to meet Nehru, that her mother looked upon him almost as father figure, and how she went on to read his books, especially Discovery of India. She ends her lecture by evoking this part of her life, ‘Today, as I thank all of you for honouring me with the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Prize, I would like to express my deep appreciation for the leaders of India who became my most precious friends because their lives helped me to find my way through uncharted terrain. The discovery of Nehru was also a discovery of myself.’

During her interview, she said that ‘politics was about ethics, service, responsibility’. When asked whether she was disappointed that she did not receive the support of the Indian government – it will be remembered that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went on an official visit to Myanmar – she answered that she had no right to be disappointed, because she did not have a right to have any expectation from the Indian government. She understood that the government had its own interests and concerns to defend. Politicians are pragmatic, she added. Her compact was with the people of India, and that is what she valued most.

When she was asked about the uprising of the Rohingya community in the south of Myanmar, she adroitly refused to be drawn into playing the blame game and to entertain the minority-majority scenario that the interviewer was trying to snare her into. Unlike the Indian political establishment, which is incapable of taking a firm stand – and here, in reverse, Indian leaders can take a lesson from her — she stated categorically that there was violence on both sides. With her intellectual stature, philosophical detachment, and political astuteness and realism, she elevated the debate to a higher level, by saying that this was an immigration/citizenship issue, and that there were two countries involved: Bangladesh and Burma, not only the latter. Therefore each one had to take its responsibility. Persons who would eventually be recognized as citizens would enjoy their full rights as such.

Unfortunately for India, her hero Jawaharlal Nehru was more of a condescending idealist than a pragmatic idealist. These days they would call this political correctness, and the present dispensation in India has been in this mode ever since.

Let us salute this Grand Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, and wish her and her county well. Now that she is officially on the scene, and straddling the world stage, Myanmar can look to the future with hope. And India can draw inspiration.

* Published in print edition on 23 November 2012

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