Why we all should support Aung San Suu Kyi: Part 2

1 February 2022
Aung San Suu Kyi and Michael Arris

Aung San Suu Kyi and Michael Arris / Arris Family Collection

One year ago, today, 1 February 2021, the democratically elected government of Myanmar was deposed by the country's military.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the ruling National League for Democracy and de facto Prime Minister was arrested along with other leaders of her party.

Notwithstanding that the NLD had won the November 2020 general election by a landslide, the Myanmar military declared the results fraudulent.

The day marked a bitterly ironic full circle for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Born on June 19, 1945, in Rangoon, British Burma, she is the daughter of Aung San, revered as founder and national hero of the country now known as Myanmar.

It was her father who conceived, shaped, and birthed the Burma Defence Army which was most likely responsible for his death in 1947 and which today holds her prisoner; not for the first time in her life, but probably the last.

Aung San Suu Kyi never knew her father. He was assassinated a month after her second birthday as I recounted yesterday. And that's where we pick up the story.

On 4 January 1948, Burma became an independent republic, under the terms of the Burma Independence Act 1947 brokered with the British by Aung San before his assassination.

The "Union of Burma", as the country was called departed, from most other former British colonies in that it did not become a member of the Commonwealth . A bicameral parliament was formed, consisting of a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Nationalities — not dissimilar to Congress and the Senate in the United States, the House of Commons and House of Lords in the UK, and the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces in South Africa.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother, Khin Kyi, put her nursing career behind her and became a politician herself. She joined the new government from 1947 to 1948, as MP for Rangoon's Lanmadaw Township which was the constituency that her husband had previously represented. She also became Director of the Burma Women's Association from 1947-53

1953 was a landmark year for the family. It saw the death of Khin Kyi's son Aung San Lin in a drowning accident. Khin Kyi became Burma's first Minister of Social Welfare and chair of the Social Welfare Planning Commission.

Over the next period, she also became chair of the Union of Burma Social Welfare Council; chair of Mother and Child Welfare; chair of the Child Welfare Council; chair of Health and Public Affairs Committee; chair of the Union of Burma Women's Associations Council; chair of the Association for the Advancement of Democracy; chief scout of the Burma Women's Scout Association; administrator of the Myanmar Ambulance Service.

(It's a formidable list of responsibilities in my book, but I can understand her pouring herself into her work following the death of her son.)

The pivotal moment came in 1960, when Khin Kyi was appointed as Burma's Ambassador to India and Nepal. Khin Kyi became the country's first woman to serve as the head of a diplomatic mission and moved to New Delhi, taking her children with her.

Aung San Suu Kyi, aged 15, went to high school at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in New Delhi.

I can only speculate what it meant for Aung San Suu Kyi to be studying in a country which also had gained independence from the British just over ten years earlier, but had a secular constitution with a very different political outlook from the land shaped by her father.

And this would have smacked her in the face in in 1962, when military leader General Ne Win, one of her father's former allies in the Thirty Comrades, deposed the country’s democratically elected government in a coup d'etat.

Ne Win put in place a revolutionary council with himself in charge. Demonstrations at Rangoon University protesting the move were violently suppressed with at least 15 students killed.

It was a brutal combination of Soviet-style nationalization and central planning of the entire economy. This situation was to continue until 1974 when the military drafted a new constitution of legitimizing their power.

While her country descended into chaos, Aung San Suu Kyi graduated with a degree in politics from the University of Delhi's Lady Shri Ram College in 1964.

From there, she moved to Oxford University's St. Hugh's College graduating with a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1967 which was promoted to an M.A . in 1968. During this time, she met Michael Aris.

I assume she and Michael Arris fell in love, because after graduating from Oxford, Aung San Suu Kyi moved to New York City where she worked for the United Nations for the next three years, and during this time wrote to Arris almost every day.

On New Year's Day 1972, the two were married, purportedly in a Buddhist ceremony before moving to Bhutan where they lived for a year before returning to the UK where their first child, Alexander Aris, was born on 12 April 1973 in London. The family moved to North Oxford for the next period and their second son, Kim, was born in 1977.

I don't have information on their family life during this time. As her children were growing up, Aung San Suu Kyi was researching and writing a biography of her father. From 1985 through 1987, Aung San Suu Kyi also worked toward an M.Phil. at University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the School of Oriental and African Studies.

It's possible that the family would have lived happily ever after but the universe dictated otherwise. Burma had meanwhile become one of the world's most impoverished countries, and yearly protests against military rule continued to be violently suppressed with overwhelming force.

Aung San Suu Kyi was isolated from these events until 1988, when Khin Kyi suffered a severe stroke.

Aung San Suu Kyi immediately flew from London to Rangoon to be at her mother's side and found herself in a country once again rising up in protest against the military dictatorship.

There were a number of pivotal events that built up to the protests:

  • The military dictatorship abruptly demonetized the national currency in 1985 declaring many denominations of bank notes to be invalid. This wiped out the life savings of many citizens.
  • Two years later, the government did exactly the same thing in September 1987 wiping out the value of between 60%-80% of all money in circulation — which particularly affected students who had save up for their fees..
  • The UN moved Burma to the list of Least Developed Countries in December 1987.
  • Military Dictator Ne Win's former second in command, was arrested after he spoke out against the country's mismanagement.
  • On 12 March 1988, riot police shot and killed a student sparking protests which spread throughout the country's universities.
  • The authorities shut down all universities which led to daily demonstrations by the student population throughout the country.
  • On 23 July 1988, Ne Win announced that he was stepping down. He promised a path to multi-party democracy but reminded the nation that "When the army shoots, it shoots to kill". He also announced appointing in his place Sein Lwin, a man known as "The Butcher of Rangoon" after leading the 1962 slaughter of students.

The masses were having none of it and began planning a major demonstration for 8 August 1988; the date chosen because of numerological significance. Preparations began in earnest. Less than a week after Sein Lwin took over as party leader and head of state, rumours began to circulate of an attempt on his life. This rumour said an aide shot him in the arm and then shot himself. By 3 August, Sein Lwin declared martial law . Here's what journalist Dominic Felder said of that day:

The first serious demonstration in Rangoon actually occurred early on the afternoon of August 3. It took me completely by surprise as it swept down Shwedagon Pagoda Road towards the city center and then turned east going past Sule Pagoda and City Hall, before sweeping around to roar back past the Indian and US embassies—the world’s largest and most powerful democracies, respectively.

As a display of raw courage, it was spine-tingling, but pretty difficult to photograph. Demonstrators were initially not keen about having their pictures taken. They covered their faces and sometimes pushed my camera away. An Australian diplomat with a camera was threatened with having his car set on fire, and some Burmese photographers suspected of working for military intelligence were beaten up. Even so, there were no security forces in sight and no attempt was made to stop the demonstration, which faded into the wet afternoon with astonishing speed.

That night, however, the junta declared martial law. The next day troops with colored bandanas, fixed bayonets and shotguns were out on the streets in force.

Came the morning of 8 August 1988 and cities across Burma were packed with demonstrators. The BBC reported that hundreds of thousands of people marched through Rangoon marking the start of the 8888 Uprising, as it came to be called. It stayed peaceful throughout the day but at midnight, troops opened fire on people gathered outside City Hall.

Over the next days, the violent crackdown against protestors intensified. Independent reports claim more that 3 000 people were killed — the regime say the actual number was 350 people.

The masses looked for a leader to rally around and turned to the 43-year-old daughter of the nation's founder to fill the her father's shoes.

And so it was that on August 26th, 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi stood on the steps of the historic Shwedagon Pagoda before close to a half-million people, and called for democracy.

(We will pick up the story again, tomorrow.)

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