Aung San Suu Kyi: The Verdict is Unfair

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken out today, calling her renewed house arrest “totally unfair,” adding to the criticism that this verdict is summoning worldwide.

It was a bizarre turn of events that led to an extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest. A few months before she was to be released, an American intruder, John Yettaw (who believed he was on a mission from God, and wanted to warn Suu Kyi of danger) swam across Inya Lake in Yangon to visit her. While his motives were certainly irrational, the fact that his arrival was not detected by the military guarding her house invites speculation and irony.

Yettaw pleaded exhaustion and Suu Kyi reluctantly allowed him to stay and rest. He was arrested when he attempted to swim back across the lake. Suu Kyi and two women in her household were imprisoned and charged with hosting a foreigner without informing the authorities, a crime in Myanmar. The ensuing trial ended in long prison sentences for all of the accused, and has triggered international outrage. Senator John Webb negotiated Yettaw’s release last week. General Than Shwe reduced Aung Than Suu Kyi’s sentence to a year and a half under continued house arrest. His act of leniency prevents her from playing a role in national elections scheduled for next year.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Burma’s national martyr and founder of the armed forces, Aung San, who was assassinated on the eve of his ascension to prime minister of an independent Burma. For much of her adult life, Aung San Suu Kyi lived and studied at Oxford University, where she raised a family.

She entered politics in 1988, during the course of a popular uprising that became a watershed moment in Burma’s modern history. Two years later, she won in a landslide election for her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), but the military regime put her under house arrest and prevented her from assuming office. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 in recognition of her work for democratic reform, and has lived under house arrest for fourteen years over the last two decades. Her party’s activities are closely monitored and frequently curtailed by the regime.

A Buddhist’s Engagement with Civil Society

Aung San Suu Kyi’s advocacy of socially engaged Buddhism has lent moral authority to her quest against the military regime. Her message articulates modern political values: liberalism, human rights, nonviolent resistance, and the empowerment of individuals.

Suu Kyi has commented on her practice of meditation as a source of spiritual strength and as an integral part of her social engagement. Her charismatic appeal among Burmese—and, markedly, among Buddhists in the West—has been heightened by her practice of meditation, her discipline, and even hunger strikes during her prolonged house arrest.

She has reflected on her solitude under house arrest, saying:

Like many of my Buddhist colleagues, I decided to put my time under detention to good use by practicing meditation… In my political work, I have been helped and strengthened by the teachings of members of the sangha [monkhood].

In exile at home, the daughter of Burma’s national hero lives the life of a world-renouncer. She speaks eloquently about things she has learned from the examples of civil rights leaders of the 20th century, and seeks to emulate in her own life Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals of nonviolence, civil resistance against oppression, and temporary ascetic withdrawal from political engagement. In adopting Gandhi’s strategies, Suu Kyi looks for ways to translate his model of satyagraha into a Buddhist context.

Strikingly, she represents perhaps the first modern female Buddhist ascetic to engage in civil resistance.

In her view, modern Buddhist ethical conduct must ameliorate social, economic, and political injustice. From this ethical premise, Suu Kyi has articulated an encompassing vision of political empowerment. She has made extensive use of salient Buddhist narratives to convey to Burmese audiences, and to Western activists, her vision of civil society and moral authority. Reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” her Letters from Burma present persuasive parables on contemporary Burmese society. Her essay “In Quest of Democracy” places the Burmese movement for democracy during the late 1980s in a Buddhist context:

The Burmese people go to the heart of the matter by turning to the words of the Buddha on the four causes of decline and decay: failure to recover that which has been lost, omission to repair that which has been damaged, disregard for the need for reasonable economy, and the elevation to leadership of men without morality or learning.

Aung San Suu Kyi conveys the values of liberal democracy and the universality of human rights in culturally salient Buddhist idioms. She advocates grassroots-level engagement with democratic reforms to bring about material and moral improvement in society. Her writings suggest a Buddhist vision of civil society in which people can live in freedom from fear; empowered to resist corruption and coercion. She articulated her political thoughts in her address to UNESCO’s World Commission on Culture and Development:

The true development of human beings involves much more than mere economic growth. At its heart there must be a sense of empowerment and inner fulfillment. This alone will ensure that human and cultural values remain paramount [in a world where] political leadership is often synonymous with tyranny and the rule of a narrow elite. People’s participation in social and political transformation is the central issue of our time. This can only be achieved through the establishment of societies which place human worth above power, and liberation above control. In this paradigm, development requires democracy, the genuine empowerment of the people. When this is achieved, culture and development will naturally coalesce to create an environment in which all are valued, and every kind of human potential can be realized.

Her voice is joined by other Buddhist activists who share her vision in Burma, and internationally: by the Thai activist Sulak Sivaraksa, the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Dalai Lama (who has publicly appealed to the Myanmar government to show “magnanimity and understanding” to “a fellow Buddhist.”

Meanwhile, in the wake of the latest trouble—and as lawyers, politicians, and religious leaders fight for her release—a new barbed wire fence has been installed around her home.