ON March 2, 1962, the military coup of General Ne Win formalized, under the Burma Socialist Programme Party, the military-led dictatorship which has governed Burma in one form or another to this day. Ne Win was a comrade of the Burma National Army founder, Aung San, and in combination their efforts within the Anti-Facist Organization ably exploited wartime colonial rivalries to drive out the Japanese and the British, both of whom had imperialist ambitions in South and Southeast Asia. Before the coup, Aung San was murdered by a rival, and after the triumphant General announced self-servingly that parliamentary democracy was incompatible with Burma.
Another anniversary, of a more encouraging nature, was observed this week in Ottawa. On February 29th the Canadian Friends of Burma celebrated its twentieth year, hosting a live videocast discussion with the daughter of the Burma National Army leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. As you know, Ms. Suu Kyi is the National League for Democracy leader and has spent most of the past twenty years — since the NLD’s election victory in 1990 — under house arrest. Wednesday, she received an honourary law doctorate from Carleton University and delivered a short televised address.
In moral courage and determination, Suu Kyi is surpassed by few. Educated, well-travelled, and cosmopolitan, her acceptance speech ended by stating, “May I thank all of you for looking upon me as a civilized being — which is what I think it means when you confer on me an honourary degree in law.” Having for decades patiently prevailed against a regime neck deep in murder, rape and forced labour, “civilized” is both the most simple and profound compliment one could render. And it fits her perfectly. So unique in her combination of qualities — soft-spoken and resolute, delicate-looking and unbreakable — the repressive 1994 Burmese constitution which excluded certain categories of persons as presidential candidates was tailored specifically for her. Not good enough for the corrupted Burmese system , she was embraced everywhere people care about freedom and the rule of law. In 2007, Suu Kyi was made an honourary Canadian citizen and the Government of Canada renewed the call for a genuine Burmese democracy.
As April 1 by-elections approach, there are indications that the old ways persist. The military dominated government continues to interfere with Suu Kyi’s movements, but reservedly, fearful as it is of the world’s displeasure. Indeed, the very fact that the NLD today pursues the 48 by-election seats (too few to alter the balance of power) indicates how far things have come. Burma is far from its new dawn, but sanctions are making material differences.
In a recent speech, Aung San Suu Kyi said that “the way in which you can continue to help us is to keep up your awareness of what is happening in Burma […] Don’t be too optimistic. Don’t be too pessimistic. Try to see things as they are and try to keep contact with the ordinary people.” Good and practical advice, and applicable everywhere that decent, peaceful and civilized people are called upon for moral support in the work of resisting tyranny.