|Aung Sang Suu Kyi embodies the hope that you can lead and use the power to bring about positive change in the lives of the ones most vulnerable. (Photo: Stan Honda, AFP)
December 26, 2012
I was not the only one to think that the sight I was about to see in Yangon on 10 December, Human Rights Day, was so unreal that it bordered on the surreal. Aung Min, the minister in charge of peace negotiations with rebel armed groups from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, said in public what most of us were thinking in private: a year ago if you told me I’d be standing beside Aung San Suu Kyiand talking about human rights at a public event, I would not have believed it, he said.
And yet, there he was, and soon after him, there she was, once the country’s most famous political prisoner and now the embodiment of hope for a peaceful and democratic future, speaking after him, stressing the importance of people’s right to speak, but also to listen, to communicate, to understand, and respect the dignity of each individual.
Those were simple words, but they had a profound implication on the way the country, once known as Burma, was governed. We were in the ballroom of a hotel on Inya Lake, Yangon’s largest, with its green ribbon-like shore along which stand hundreds of trees, at one end of which is a shining golden pagoda, and, at its other end, the house by the water in which Suu Kyi remained imprisoned for close to two decades.
A few years ago, in a bizarre incident, an American man called John Yettaw swam across the lake and entered her home, uninvited, telling her that her life was in danger. By that senseless act, he gave the government the excuse to extend her prison term, preventing her from being able to express her views on a new constitution and ensuring that her party, the National League of Democracy, would go unrepresented in the new parliament. The walls along her house had kept her away from her people; the lake in front of her house, which would have offered her the spot to contemplate and reflect, instead became the harbinger of trouble. It was as if she’d need to build a wall there, to keep people like Yettaw away, so that she could be free.
And then, in April, I am in Bahan township, in front of her office, seeing hundreds of supporters wearing red T-shirts with the golden peacock, swaying to the tune of Myanmar pop, celebrating the National League of Democracy sweeping the by-elections. I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes.
And now she is free—she can go to that hotel across the lake and speak about human rights. She can travel around the world, receiving prizes she could not accept in person earlier. Her eyes brighten when I mention to her that Romila Thapar
remembers her; she asks about Vikram Seth
and joins me in reciting his poem, All you who sleep tonight, in full. Now she can travel within the country, not in defiance of the generals, but to uphold national unity— as a parliamentarian, as the chair of a committee set up to establish the rule of law and tranquillity.
It has been a stressful year for Suu Kyi. Her measured responses to the Rohingya crisis, which has seen an upsurge in violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the Rakhine province bordering Bangladesh, has disheartened many of her supporters internationally. Her call to establish the rule of law, and unwillingness to get drawn into the question of the legal status of the Rohingyas, has made many of her liberal supporters realize that as a politician, her response would be different from what it would have been if she were a prisoner.
Politics is all about compromise, about settling for deals that may not be perfect, agreeing to positions that go against deeply held convictions. In reminding everyone that she is a politician and not an icon, Suu Kyi may have come down from a pedestal. But she didn’t choose to be a prisoner, and she didn’t choose to be an icon either. Both conditions were thrust upon her; the real challenge was always how she would use the power that had eluded her.
And Suu Kyi, through her persistence, her forbearance, and her unwavering commitment to non-violence, has shown that another way is possible. In a world where leaders shout at one another, bulldoze the homes of the vulnerable, imprison those whose thoughts they don’t like, massacre those who want a different kind of governance, arrogate to themselves powers that the rules forbid and then try to force change in the rules so that the power grab appears legal, or fail to act against spiralling corruption, the idea of someone like Suu Kyi, so close to power, is reassuring. It does not mean she will make a great leader, or even one with great power. But she embodies the hope that you can lead and use the power to bring about positive change in the lives of the ones most vulnerable.
As we drive away from the hotel, recalling her quiet voice, her mildly shaking head as she speaks, and the tiara of flowers encircling her hair, I feel oddly optimistic, and privileged, at being able to witness history.