Many thousands of protestors turned out yesterday in the largest protests in Myanmar since 2007, flaunting the military-imposed state of emergency, brandishing pots, pans and balloons. They were, of course, protesting last week’s arrest and toppling of Aung San Suu Kyi, newly elected State Counsellor (equivalent to a Prime Minister/Head of State), 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and daughter of General Aung San, ‘Father’ of both the modern Burmese army and the country of Myanmar, itself. The charges filed for her arrest: illegally importing walkie-talkies (that were used by her security detail.) The charge carries a maximum 3-year prison sentence upon conviction.
(Side Note: Conventions for personal names vary around the world and it can be difficult to know which are the ‘personal’ names and which the surnames. The Burmese have no official surnames: ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ comes from her father’s name, ‘Suu’ from her paternal grandmother, and ‘Kyi’ from her mother Khin Kyi. And, writing of names, I challenge my friends to name the country’s capital city! …It is ‘Nay Pyi Taw’ (‘royal capital’ from ‘abode of the king’), not a re-naming of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) but a whole new city planned from scratch, like Brasilia. It was completed in 2012 and sits in what was formerly called Pyinmana District; coincidentally, the World War II headquarters of General Aung San.)
The military coup in Republic of the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma) ought to be greeted with condemnation by all supporters of democracy. Equally, it should give us pause to think upon the fact that when people support ‘power’ instead of ‘principals’, authoritarianism and autocracy instead of a representative government of egalitarian freedoms and justice, they run grave risks. It easily leads to the sort of treasonable behavior we saw in the United States on January 6th.
Vice President Mike Pence, a darling of the Right, became the target of treasonous individuals, gathering in massed-crowd proportions, calling out for his death as a traitor to their glorious leader. I cannot immediately think of another example of a person going from fawning, ass-kissing sycophant of the supreme leader to being targeted for death – overnight! (oh, wait… yes I can: Kim Jung-un’s uncle-by-marriage, Jang Song-thaek, who went from being North Korea’s #2 in power to being be-headed (according to what President Trump was told by Jong-un). When a democracy is based upon the valorization of personality instead of engraved-in-stone principals, trouble can be as close as a change in personality, particularly if that figurehead was seriously misread by pretty much everyone.
Our former governor and U.N. Ambassador (and member of my cigar club), Bill Richardson published a great Commentary yesterday in the Santa Fe New Mexican (oldest continuously publishing newspaper west of the Mississippi and still operated under family ownership). The article titled, “My Time with Aung San Suu Kyi”, details Richardson’s significant work in Myanmar with her.
“I felt immense disappointment in the woman who was my friend for over two decades, who championed democracy as a citizen but then failed as a leader to protect democratic ideals and basic human rights… During my [1994, first] encounter with her, she was already quite regal. Always very serious, she rarely laughed or joked. She spoke brilliantly about democracy, human rights, the Burmese people and her family… [she was] one of the few causes on which Sen. Mitch McConnell and President Barack Obama could agree. She was freed in 2010 and I met with her again in 2012, this time to offer assistance before the 2015 elections. At her request, in a very short time, my foundation trained more than 3,500 young political activists, political candidates and members of Parliament… Just two years later, her moral leadership was put to the test [the Rohingya genocide], and she failed miserably…
“My last encounter with Suu Kyi was a painful one. I was invited to Myanmar in early 2018 as part of an international panel set up by Myanmar allegedly to advise them on the Rohingya crisis. At one of the meetings with Suu Kyi, I brought up my concerns about the case of two Reuters reporters who had been jailed after reporting on evidence of alleged mass graves. I told her what I’d hoped she’d be brave enough to say. Democracies do not jail members of the press. She became furious with me, insisting the trial of the journalists was not within the scope of the advisory board. Her spokesperson issued a statement scolding me for deviating from the meeting’s agenda.
Soon after, I quit the panel and left the country. I simply could not participate in whitewashing genocide, and I was not going to be a cheerleader for Suu Kyi or for her government. During my visit, I witnessed Suu Kyi and her team attack with vigor the media, the United Nations and human rights groups that had championed her for years. I faced the sad reality that she was more focused on protecting her own power than the rights of her citizens.”
Governor Richardson’s article does not mention that Aung San Suu Kyi even went to the International Court of Justice at The Hague to defend the Burmese military against allegations of genocide against the Muslim Rohingya minority. Some 750,00 Rohingya fled Myanmar into refugee camps in Bangladesh where, last I checked, most still live in deplorable conditions. Bangladesh is to be lauded for taking in these desperate people when the country itself is one of the poorest on the planet (49th from the bottom of the world’s countries by GDP based on purchasing-power-parity per capita.)
Those old sayings of our grandparents endure because there is often an element of truth in them: “lie down with (street) dogs and you will get (bitten by) fleas.”
If you wish to know more about Aung San Suu Kyi there was an excellent profile in The New Yorker magazine some years ago.
Photo: Aung San Suu Kyi, 2011 from Wikimedia Commons