Review: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's unfinished struggle

June 24, 2012
Aung San Suu Kyi greets Burmese migrant workers in Thailand.

Struggle For Freedom: Aung San Suu Kyi
By Jesper Bengtsson
Fourth Estate, 2011, 308 pages, $35 (pb)

Aung San Suu Kyi’s entry into political activism in Burma in 1988 quickly met the fate of so many other pro-democracy opponents of the Burmese military dictatorship — decades of arrest and harassment.

Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years. But, as Jesper Bengtsson’s biography of the 65-year-old Suu Kyi shows, her resistance and courage, like that of so many other Burmese, has not faltered.

Born in 1945, Suu Kyi had a relatively privileged background. She was educated at private schools in Burma and Oxford University in England before becoming an academic in London.

Her father was the leader of Burma’s anti-colonial struggle, but Suu Kyi was politically passive while living abroad for 25 years. This ended when she returned to her dying mother in Burma in 1988.

This was the the time of Burma’s greatest ever popular uprising against the military junta. Millions took to the streets to oppose the regime that had overthrown Burma’s first and only democratically elected government in 1962.

Suu Kyi helped found the National League for Democracy (NLD) which recruited a dizzying three million members. Although placed under house arrest, Suu Kyi led the NLD to a stunning success in the 1990 elections.

The military junta misguidedly thought the election, amid intimidation of NLD activists, would return a junta-linked civilian front government. However, the NLD won 80% of the seats in parliament and the NLD-aligned ethnic minorities won 14%.

The junta returned to form, annulled the election result, jailed activists and crushed dissent.

Suu Kyi’s third period of house arrest from 2003 ended in 2010. A rigged election left the military in control behind a civilian facade, offering a drip-feed of democratic reforms to neutralise the NLD and preserve majority military control of politics and the economy.

Suu Kyi’s response to the regime’s latest reformist enticements, notes Bengtsson, has been ambivalent.

She distrusts the junta’s talk about political liberty (a concept advanced before and as surely abandoned as soon as popular pressure for political change has built up). But Bengtsson says Suu Kyi’s decades-long strategy of seeking dialogue with, rather than the overthrow of, the junta could be a political weakness it can exploit.

He notes, for example, that Suu Kyi missed the chance to proclaim an alternative centre of power after the NLD’s 1990 election win. This was even after Buddhist monks offered the NLD a new parliament in a monastery (traditional Burmese centres for political activism) in Mandalay.

Suu Kyi’s embrace of the more politically naive Buddhist concept of “mutual forgiveness” overrode the radical thrust of Buddhist resistance to the regime. When Buddhist monks rose, and lost, against the regime in 2007, the NLD again failed to provide political leadership to a mass uprising.

Bengsston notes this hesitancy with regard to revolutionary political action reflects the NLD’s lack of a detailed political program behind its banner of “democracy”. Taken abstractly, “democracy” can encompass a military-friendly or fully-fledged parliamentary democracy to ensure a more stable class rule of capital.

Nothing in Suu Kyi’s political background has shown a desire for socialist democracy to tackle Burma’s chronic poverty and extreme class inequality.

It may be hard, however, to fairly assess Suu Kyi’s political philosophy given her decades of enforced isolation under house-arrest. Bengsston had just one interview (in 2011) with Suu Kyi.

Although thin as a complete biography or political evaluation of Suu Kyi, what Bengsston’s book does quite well is to portray Suu Kyi’s undoubted courage.

She refuses to allow fear to rule her life. She has repeatedly placed her body in danger, in solidarity with her NLD comrades who have been brutalised by the junta.

Suu Kyi, as Bengsston concludes, is the “unifying power” for all opponents of the junta’s dictatorship. She deserves the support of all genuine opponents of tyranny.

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