When did you last go out to your local for a Burmese, or race to catch a Myanmar thriller, or slip a CD of Burmese rock into your player? Unlike Thailand, China, Japan and India, the culture of Burma since post-colonial independence has remained hidden and insular during 50 censored, often brutal, years of military dictatorship.
All that most people know is the fame, trials and repression of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was democratically elected in 1990, won the Nobel peace prize in 1991 and lived under house arrest or, on and off, for 16 years.
You may also know that after regime change in 2010 she was suddenly released, elected as an MP and even given leave to travel abroad. She was allowed to canvas for the presidency in the recent election but not for the constitutional changes necessary to accept it, for in the constution is a clause excluding anyone from the presidency who has foreign children. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British academic and she has two British sons.
When she appeared in London after her years of house arrest it was, for those of us who had followed her campaign for many years, as if Elvis had never died and John Lennon had been in hiding. I was rendered dumb when she spoke to me as she passed down the aisle of a Westminster hall. My articles, she said, had made her laugh many times during her captivity. It was enough praise for me for one lifetime.
The election in Burma last month meant Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won, as it did 25 years ago, a landslide victory and a mandate to form the next government. Freedom and democracy comes to Burma and five decades of military oppression ends.
After years of harassment, house arrest, student repression, cat-and-mouse promises and conditional inching forward and jumping back, the country could open up to trade, tourism and step out of fear and darkness into freedom and light.
Or could it?
Friends of mine can’t wait to book their passage to this beautiful and historic Asian jewel. They cite temples and trips down the Irrawaddy. They talk about the beauty and hospitality of the people, the delicate fragrance of the food. Doors are opening, they say, and they want to be the first to say they have seen change as it happens. The Lady herself has suggested tourists would be welcome.
Seasoned Burma-watchers, however, are shaking their heads sadly, not shaking up the Krug in preparation for the party. Not yet. Not quite. The jolly old generals, under Thein Sein, seemingly reformist leader of the country, renamed Myanmar, carefully constructed a new constitution in 2008 which allows them to retain control over the country at every level of government. They have a council of 11 which can overrule changes made by the government, and they retain the right to retake military control in any “national emergency”.
The Lady can’t afford to cross them openly. There have been complaints that she has not spoken up about persecution of ethnic minorities like the Keren people and the Rohinga Muslims. Until the results were counted, aware that 10 million ethnic votes had been withdrawn, she could not afford to tread on any military toes. You’ve heard of a kangaroo court — well, this is a penguin poll. The NLD get to stand warming an egg between their feet and freezing to death until mama penguin brings home the fish.
Because, if the NLD has little control over the army, police or security, Suu Kyi and her cabinet will be powerless to stop the human rights violations that have gone on for almost half a century.
In Thaketa township, days before she was due to speak at a rally in Rangoon, one of her MPs, Naing Ngan Lin, was viciously attacked with a sword and hospitalised with injuries to his head, neck and arms.
Attacks against ethnic groups will escalate, rape will continue to be used as a weapon of war, dissent will be punished by imprisonment and torture. And here’s the rub: the plight of the Rohinga Muslims invokes as much interest in the outside world as that of the Yazidi and Christians in the Middle East. Why? Where else in the world are Muslims being attacked and murdered and their villages burned to the ground by extremist Buddhists? It is beyond comprehension. I know from sour experience that it is impossible to get a story of Burmese terror onto the front page of any newspaper unless Aung San Suu Kyi is physically in danger. Perhaps there’s only enough compassion and righteous anger in our world for one cause, one people.
So, as in the last “free” election, it could be a free election in name only. The turnout was enviable, the NLD did triumph, but it seems doubtful the new government will ever be able to pass laws to benefit all Burmese citizens when it is hamstrung by the military on so many issues.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a daughter of the military. She must play a clever political game with her former captors.
Curiously, the ethnic wars alone (there are 135 ethnicities in Burma) have silenced her in a way that years of house arrest never could. Not one of the NLD or the ruling USDP party candidates was a Muslim. There is also a powerful organisation, Ma Ba Tha (“Association for the Protection of Race and Religion”), which may also be leaning on the Lady.
“Of course we are not going into this election without having an idea of how we intend to handle this problem,” said Daw Suu Kyi.The Lady is for learning. She has a plan B-urma up her silken sleeve. She will find a way to preside without being a president. Understandably, she has been quiet this year too, touring the country whilst basing herself in Naypyidaw, the creepy new jungle capital. It is a waiting game but I have genuine faith in her as a human being and a politician.
“Is this democracy on a leash?” she was asked. She smiled. “That is making a dog out of democracy. We won’t do that.”
She has visited the US and China as well as the UK. She maintains friendship with both east and west. Softly-softly is her style, restraint and composure her natural state. Uneasy lies the flowered head that was kiss-kissed by President Obama on the White House lawn. But her country needs friends to tiptoe with her, friends who understand her history. People like John Bercow, Hillary Clinton and, formerly, David Miliband do that. Please look up Burma Campaign UK. We really do live in interesting times. Namaste.