Myanmar: Waiting for Aung San Suu Kyi

A picture provided by Myanmar News Agency shows detained democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (left) shaking hands with Myanmar's labor minister prior to their meeting in Yangon in November. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

The last time I saw Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, general secretary of Myanmar's National League for Democracy (N.L.D.), was in 1996.

Aung San Suu Kyi was then under house arrest, but this did not stop her from addressing a crowd of thousands who came regularly to hear her "voice of hope" every Saturday outside her house on University Avenue in Yangoon, formerly Rangoon.

Aung San Suu Kyi looked at ease as she spoke to a crowd that obviously adored her. It was then that I decided to learn more about the N.L.D. and why the ruling junta, which overwhelmingly lost the democratic vote to the Aung San Suu Kyi-led N.L.D. in 1990, had not respected the voice of the people.

I returned to Myanmar, formerly Burma, in 2003, and became mired in the jungle of bureaucracy.

"No, you cannot buy tickets for Bhamo, it is out of bounds for foreigners," the official behind the counter at Myanma Airways declared. "The Lonely Planet says Bhamo is now open, you must sell us a ticket," I insisted.

The official examined the guidebook carefully, showed his superiors, before returning to declare, "I am sorry sir, you must gain a permit from the Ministry of Defense," a 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) taxi trip from the city.

I asked to speak to the manager and minutes later, I am being directed outside the building, along the road and back inside another building, that backs onto the same building I have just left. I sat and patiently waited. Finally, a man dressed in army uniform entered from the street. He asked, "Why do you want to travel to Bhamo?"

"I want to catch the ferry to Mandalay," I replied. "O.K., I will authorize the tickets," he said. As we left, I asked who he was. He said, "U Kyaw Myint, deputy minister for transport."


Bhamo is situated some 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Chinese border on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State. Foreigners are forbidden to travel more than 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from the city center.

Forbidden, perhaps, because January is poppy season, when the flowers open to reveal an orb that is lanced to extract opium.

A local we spoke to told of people who simply disappeared if they opposed the rule of the junta; their relatives are imprisoned. Similar tales of intimidation were echoed throughout our journey on the road to Mandalay, Bagan, and Taunggyi.

A human rights worker in Mandalay spoke of the daily struggle to buy food. She said a hotel worker was jailed just for dining with Westerners and, on release, forbidden to work in the industry.

An academic in Taunggyi likened Australia's "constructive engagement" with the junta to "watering a poisonous plant." He said Australia was wasting its time and money on a regime that was not committed to political reconciliation. "There will be no improvement in Myanmar without regime change…"

Aung San Suu Kyi seemingly agreed when she referred to the Australian sponsored "human rights program" designed to improve rights for Burmese as "a fox looking after the chickens," as most involved in the program were from the military.

Back in Yangoon, we looked forward to our meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. Under the shadow of the majestic Shwedagon pagoda, the N.L.D. headquarters on Shwegon Road is inconspicuous—a teak shop on one side and a residence on the other. Across the road, small shops among trees are usually staked out by military intelligence, ready with their Nikon cameras and walkie-talkies.

The atmosphere inside is electric. A young man approached us smiling, reached into his pocket, and "awarded" us N.L.D. badges (depicting the golden peacock and Aung San Suu Kyi), which we pinned to our lapels. He informed us sadly that Aung San Suu Kyi was in hospital that day undergoing an operation so we could not see her. But we were quite welcome to interview her spokesperson, U Lwin.

While we waited, we learned that the N.L.D. headquarters also served as a venue for social service provision. Some 100 babies come monthly to be weighed, fed, and given vitamins, while their parents receive tuition on early childcare. One volunteer mentioned that almost half the children in Myanmar suffer from malnutrition. The N.L.D. also conducts biweekly adult/children education classes.

An elderly man in his late 70's appeared and slowly, with the aid of a walking stick, made his way up the teak staircase. U Lwin had arrived.

We were summoned to join him in his office. His English was polished as he spoke at length about the years of struggle and oppression endured by the Burmese people. "The N.L.D. has tried to engage the junta in dialogue regarding peaceful negotiations and reconciliation but these have been sabotaged by the regime," he said. "Ms. Suu Kyi's latest attempt at engaging ASEAN leaders as possible arbitrators was fruitless, as the junta cancelled Malaysian P.M. Mahathir's meeting with her late last year."

Australian Complicity

The next day we returned to the N.L.D. office and were fortunate to be able to talk to U Tin U (Oo), N.L.D. vice-chairperson. Tin U, also currently under house arrest, assured us we were in no danger as Australia and China had "most favored nation" status with the junta. "They won't touch you," he said.

He spoke vehemently of the 1,200 Burmese imprisoned for their political beliefs. Tin U was highly critical of Australia's ongoing "constructive engagement" human rights workshops with the regime—criticism he said the Australian ambassador in Yangoon agrees with.

"The problem is, this program of the Australian government makes a lot of people outside Burma think that the junta is doing everything in accordance with the universal declaration of human rights, but this is not accurate, as underneath there is a lot of oppression and many violations of human rights."

I have since visited Myanmar in 2005, when I traveled to Kengtung, and also Tachilek in 2008. The oppression of the Burmese people remains, forcing many to take refuge in Thailand where there are more than 150,000 Burmese in refugee camps, and where more than 2 million survive as migrant workers.

Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, extended for another year, in Yangoon where she has not been allowed to see her doctor since January. She survives in a house that was badly damaged by Cyclone Nargis.

June 19 was her 63rd birthday. Let us hope the world will place principle before profit and help free Aung San Suu Kyi and her people before she turns 64.

From Green Left Weekly.