Burma: power to which people?

Aung San Suu Kyi has finally been released, but the Burmese people will not be freed by her international fan-club of statesmen and celebs.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

The release from house arrest of Burma’s opposition figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi is good news, as the freeing of any political prisoner should be. But let’s be honest. Her release seems unlikely to bring the Burmese people any closer to freedom from oppression, so long as opposition to the military junta is being led by her groupies in the Western media and political class. What Burma surely needs is a democratic revolution led from within, not a global Twitter-fest fronted by the likes of Bono and Gordon Brown.

Suu Kyi’s release has led to a near-orgasmic outpouring of excitement and self-flattery in the West, and nowhere more so than in Britain. Former New Labour prime minister Brown emerged from his own political exile to announce that her detention was ‘one of the defining causes of our time’, and to declare her release ‘a great victory for people power’. But which people? Not the Burmese apparently – Brown told readers of the UK Guardian that she is now free ‘thanks to you’, because of the demands for her release from ‘millions of people around the world’. (Brown also reminded them that he had ‘guest-edited’ his wife’s Twitter stream to advertise Suu Kyi’s plight only days before her release, so maybe it was actually him wot won it.) Bono, the rock star and human rights evangelist, told CNN that he was ‘feeling great’ and ‘very excited’ (that is what matters after all), and that ‘she is kind of the Mandela of our moment’, which is the nearest thing in those circles to being seen as a secular saint.

Yes, the detention of Suu Kyi – alongside that of 2000-odd political prisoners in Burma whose names we do not know – was a disgrace. But by what light could the house arrest of one 65-year old woman in a country on the edge of world politics be seen as a ‘defining cause of our time’? Perhaps only because in the past few years it was given the Hollywood treatment, along with select other international issues such as Tibet and Darfur. Famous people with no known interest in or knowledge of the countries concerned have helped to turn the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi into pin-ups of international liberal opinion (they have yet to find such a photogenic figure for Darfur).

After her release, the Labour peer Baroness Kinnock said of Suu Kyi that ‘she has more serenity and humanity than anyone I have ever met’, and praised her most striking feature as ‘her modesty’. This is how the Western elites prefer to see their Third World rebels – serene, modest, embracing non-violence and, better still, graceful and Oxbridge-educated. Not violent revolutionaries like, for example, those nasty Maoists who overthrew the tyrannical old regime in Nepal.

Demanding the release of Suu Kyi in a faraway country of which we know little has provided a welcome feelgood factor for Western opinion-makers of a sort that domestic politics cannot supply these days, a rare chance to mount the moral high ground on the side of the angels. As one elated liberal writer put it this week, ‘how rare and refreshing to find a cause that unites left and right across the globe in these deeply divided times’. We only wait to see who gets to follow in the footsteps of Morgan Freeman’s Mandela and play Suu Kyi in the Hollywood version.

If all of this self-congratulatory grandstanding in the West was simply the emotional transference fantasies of a few celebrity groupies, we could leave them to it and concentrate on actual events. But the bizarre fact is that this Western view is shaping the real debate about Burma’s future. Their Madonna-like image (as in the saint, not the singer) of Suu Kyi sums up how we are supposed to see the Burmese – courageous yet pacifist and placid, ultimately at the mercy of the military regime. And according to this worldview, the only thing that can save the Burmese people from the junta and its evil allies in China and India is more Western-led international intervention.

What never seems to occur to the cheerleaders of intervention, no matter how many Iraqs or Afghanistans they witness, is that the more ‘internationalised’ the fate of a nation such as Burma becomes, the less control its people can exercise over their own destiny.

The evolution of Suu Kyi’s own struggle illustrates how Burma has become an object of international politics. It seemed telling that, after spending the past decade under house arrest, during which she has been hailed as the Burmese people’s true leader, her first important meeting following release was with foreign ambassadors rather than her own supporters. She has said she does not want to talk to crowds. This captures rather well how Suu Kyi has become a player in international diplomacy more than Burmese political struggle.

Suu Kyi is the daughter of the legendary Burmese independence leader, Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947 when she was an infant. She was an academic with a British husband when she became leader of the Burmese opposition movement almost by accident, as a visit home to Burma to visit her sick mother coincided with the 1988 uprising against the military dictatorship. She addressed a large crowd, calling for democracy, and was immediately hailed as the hereditary leader of the resistance. Within a few weeks, however, the generals had imposed a crackdown and installed a new regime. Suu Kyi was to spend 15 of the following 21 years under house arrest. In 1990 her National League for Democracy won Burma’s only recognised general election, making her prime minister elect, but the military ignored the result and carried on while she remained largely isolated in her lakeside home.

The upshot is that, although Suu Kyi is globally recognised as leader of the Burmese opposition, she has largely been kept away from actual political struggle in Burma. Instead her profile has been maintained by international supporters who have kept her name in the headlines in the West. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and many other accolades followed.

One important consequence of this experience of isolation at home and adulation abroad is that Suu Kyi apparently came to see international pressure as the way ahead. Hence she has long endorsed Western sanctions against the regime in Burma, despite evidence that these could do more harm to the common people than to the generals.

Now Suu Kyi’s release has finally come about, but not as a result of any popular pressure in Burma. Indeed the irony is that she has ‘won’ her freedom at a time when the opposition movement appears cowed and divided. After it easily suppressed the attempted ‘saffron revolution’ led by Buddhist monks in 2007, the junta has been growing in confidence. It recently staged sham elections which the pro-military parties inevitably won. These elections threw Suu Kyi’s NLD into tactical disarray. Her allies opted formally to disband the party rather than contest a poll which they feared would only give the generals legitimacy. But another faction decided to break away in an acrimonious split, and stood in the elections as the National Democratic Front. The results appeared to leave the junta in control of events in Burma, though facing fresh condemnations from the West.

So it was that, only a few days before the media hailed her release as a triumph, BBC News online could run a rather more sober feature entitled ‘Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma’s fading light?’ The generals responded to this turn of events by releasing Suu Kyi from a position of their relative strength, hoping to use her as a pawn in the diplomatic games they are playing with the great powers.

China and India remain Burma’s big regional allies and investors, and have taken no position on Suu Kyi, merely suggesting that it is an internal Burmese affair. The junta has also however been trying to improve relations with the Western powers which are keen to prevent Burma becoming, in the words of one US statesman, an outpost of China. Hence US president Barack Obama held a surprise meeting with Burma’s supposedly pariah premier a year ago, where he called for Suu Kyi’s release. The regime will hope to have won a few international brownie points this week.

Now the debate is about whether Western sanctions will be relaxed – with the approval of Ms Suu Kyi of course – and whether the Americans, Chinese or Indian economies would benefit most from any opening up of the Burmese economy. What about the Burmese people? They hardly appear to be getting a look-in.

This harsh reality puts some perspective on the claims that Suu Kyi’s release is a ‘Mandela moment’. There are similarities between the two. Both Suu Kyi and Mandela, for example, owe their reputations more to their fortitude in the face of long-term imprisonment than to their political beliefs. Little is known about her politics beyond her support for democracy, which admittedly is a good start.

Mandela emerged from his years in prison as the figurehead of a mass movement, the ANC, that had struggled against the apartheid regime for decades on the streets of South Africa. Even so, when he came out of jail in 1990 the ANC’s struggle to smash the apartheid state was already effectively over, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of their Soviet allies having left them isolated. Mandela the statesman emerged seeking a deal with the apartheid authorities for the peaceful handover of power and demanding reconciliation rather than revolution.

Now Suu Kyi has been freed as the figurehead of a far weaker opposition, a ‘movement’ which arguably exists more in the international media than on Burma’s streets and exerts little obvious pressure on the regime. Almost her first words on being released were to call for national reconciliation with the military leaders. What can that mean in these circumstances? Some among Burma’s people might feel entitled to ask if this is really the aim they have suffered to achieve.

Of course it is understandable that opposition leaders should choose their words with care when they fear another military crackdown. But history suggests that appearing meek and mild provides no protection against dictators, indeed it can encourage them to look upon you as lambs to the slaughter. The following day Suu Kyi reportedly sought to toughen her message a little by suggesting that Burma needs a ‘non-violent revolution’. Who might make and lead such a revolution now? The last time the Burmese tried non-violent protests, three years ago, marching behind monks while blogging for international support, the military crushed them. It will surely take more than a repeat of that to win real freedom for Burma this time, and more than being pawns in international power games to make the democratic revolution they need.

Some will say that the Burmese opposition have no alternative but to try to compromise with the military regime, given the odds they are up against. They might be right; of course there is no point making martyrs. But the history of Burma, and of Suu Kyi’s own father, suggests that the people are capable of taking on tyrants.

Aung San would hardly fit the bill for the sort of non-violent, serene Third World rebel that the Western media loves today. He was a Communist-allied nationalist leader who led protests, general strikes and guerrilla wars against both the British colonialists and the Japanese invaders before, during and after the Second World War. He also understood the need to wheel and deal between the imperialist powers – at one stage of the war he was honoured by Japan’s Emperor Hirohito and condemned as a traitorous rebel by Winston Churchill, and at other times he worked with the British to facilitate decolonisation. Yet Aung San remained stalwart in pursuit of Burmese independence and national revolution. He founded the Burmese armed forces shortly before he was assassinated by supporters of the old order – with the involvement of British army officers. Those same armed forces are now the formidable oppressors in Burma. Yet his story shows how with leadership and organisation the Burmese have proved capable of overcoming the odds.

Gordon Brown may claim now that the release of Aung San Suu Kyi after the international media campaign is a ‘great victory for people power’. But the question remains, which people have the power to free Burma?

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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