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Aung San Suu Kyi ~ and U2
(Among the Composite Images)
Copyright © 2017 OneWorldImages.com
Note: the black-and-white images of Aung San Suu Kyi depicted here are not my own - sources are identified at the end of this text.
If you do not know her name, you have missed the story of one of the most remarkable and inspirational political leaders of our time. Since 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi has led her people in a fight to bring freedom and democracy to Burma, a country that has suffered under military rule for more than four decades. A Nobel laureate, Suu Kyi has been compared to Gandhi for her strident belief in nonviolent struggle as a means of effecting political change. Her struggle continues today. Without help from like-minded people across the globe, she may not live to see her dream of a free and democratic Burma attained. Read on - and yes, I will explain how U2 fits in!
Born in 1945, Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of the late Bogyoke Aung San, widely considered the father of Burma's independence movement. Regarded as a national hero today, Aung San fought for his country's freedom with conviction and grace. In the mid-1940s, several years before Burma won its independence following nearly a century of British rule, he summarized his position as follows: "We must make democracy the popular creed. We must try to build up a free Burma in accordance with such a creed. If we should fail to do this, our people are bound to suffer.... Democracy is the only ideology which is consistent with freedom. It is also an ideology that promotes and strengthens peace. It is therefore the only ideology we should aim for."
Others saw a different future for Burma - one built upon socialism and authoritarian rule. As it became probable that Britain would relinquish control of the country, various factions battled to determine which system of government would succeed colonialism. In 1947, Bogyoke Aung San and six of his assistants were assassinated by political foes. Months later, the British formally granted independence to Burma. A period of chaos ensued. A president was named and a parliamentary government established, but the region's many tribes and ethnic groups fought amongst themselves for control of the country. For over a decade, the political battles continued. Finally, in 1962, military leader Ne Win seized control of the government and abolished the parliament.
For the next 25 years, the junta (known in Burma as the Tatmadaw) controlled the country and progress stalled. The economy staggered and corruption spread. In 1988, their patience exhausted, the people packed the streets in demonstrations against a corrupt and incompetent government. Demands were made that Ne Win, still the de facto ruler more than a quarter-century after seizing power, resign. The government responded by brutally crushing the democracy movement in a six-week crackdown that resulted in some 3,000 deaths. Still, change was coming. Ne Win officially retired, though he continued to direct things from afar for some time. The beleaguered opposition eventually regrouped to form the National League for Democracy (NLD) and rallied around spokesperson Aung San Suu Kyi, who had returned to the country to care for her ailing mother.
As a teenager, Suu Kyi left Burma when her mother accepted an appointment as the country's ambassador to India. From India, she moved on to the University of Oxford and later spent two years in New York City. In the 1970s, following her marriage to Oxford professor Dr. Michael Aris, Suu Kyi gave birth to sons Alexander (in 1973) and Kim (1977). In 1988, when her mother fell ill in Burma, Suu Kyi returned. Intelligent and well educated, fluent in several languages, and daughter of the revered Bogyoke Aung San, she was thrust into a leadership role. As a result of her growing influence following the unrest of 1988, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the Burmese government in July 1989.
Confident it had quelled the democracy movement, the government announced in 1990 that it would hold "free" elections - and so it did. Despite attempts to influence things in its favor, the military government was overwhelmingly defeated by NLD candidates, who took 392 of the 485 contested seats. Having lost the elections, the junta barred the elected members of parliament from assuming power and arrested key NLD leaders. Since 1990, over 100 of the elected NLD leaders have been killed, exiled, or imprisoned. Initially, the world press paid little attention to such developments in Burma. During the early 1990s, with democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi still detained, the plight of the Burmese people began to receive attention. In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Finally, in 1995, she was released from house arrest.
Following Suu Kyi's release, the democratic movement in Burma again gained momentum. She was allowed to speak to crowds of supporters from her Yangon (Rangoon) home. After attempting to organize a congress of NLD leaders in 1996, her residence was blockaded and her speeches curtailed by the government. In '98, she was prevented from leaving Yangon to meet with supporters. Her husband, dying of cancer in Oxford, was denied a visa application when he attempted to see Suu Kyi a final time. He died in 1999, his wife unable to be at his side. (For the record, the Burmese government has at times indicated it would allow Suu Kyi to leave the country but refuses to guarantee that she'd be permitted to return.) In September 2000, Suu Kyi attempted to leave Yangon to meet with supporters but was once again stopped by military personnel. She waited in her car by the roadside blockade for six days, refusing to return home. Again, she was placed under house arrest. In May of 2002, she was released and allowed to travel freely throughout the country, only to be rearrested in 2003. She remains under house arrest to this day despite repeated calls for her release by leaders across the globe.
Why Her Story Matters
Aung San Suu Kyi is important because she wages a nonviolent struggle for freedom on behalf of some 50 million people. At great personal sacrifice, she and her supporters toil away in Burma, maintaining hope that the Burmese people will one day be free. Her country's government is widely touted as one of the most corrupt and inhumane on the planet. Yet she refuses to resort to violence to elicit change (and implores supporters to follow her lead). In an era where humans still too often use violent means to elicit political change, Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to do so: "Even if the democracy movement were to succeed through force of arms, it would leave in the minds of the people the idea that whoever has greater armed might wins in the end. That will not help democracy." She believes that democracy can achieve long-term success only if its adherents learn to change things through nonviolent means.
Indeed, the future of humanity may well depend on it. At some point, if we cannot learn to influence one another and effect change without resorting to armed conflict, the bombs - the really nasty ones - will fly.
Enter Bono and U2
On April 5, 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi and a small group of NLD leaders were stopped by government soldiers following a pro-democracy gathering in southwest Burma. The group was ordered off the road. Instructing her colleagues to remain behind, Suu Kyi began walking down the road alone. Rifles drawn, the soldiers were ordered to fire. Suu Kyi continued walking. At the last minute, allegedly nearing the end of an audible countdown, an army officer intervened and countermanded the order to fire.
In October 2000, the Irish band U2 released an album entitled "All That You Can't Leave Behind." The album's name is taken from the lyrics of "Walk On," a song dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi. Bono, the band's lead singer, had been following the Burmese leader's struggle for freedom and wrote the song with her in mind. (Bono has since become an outspoken advocate of the Burmese. He slammed European leaders for doing little to change the situation in Burma and testified in front of a U.S. congressional hearing in May 2004.) What follows are the lyrics of "Walk On." For those with broadband Internet connectivity, you can listen in by selecting the audio [Play] button (small arrow) to the right of the ONEWORLDIMAGES.COM logo atop this page. Note: this is a streaming audio clip with a bit rate of 96 kbps - dialup speeds won't do it. Sorry.
Lyrics to "Walk On" (by U2)
And love - it's not the easy thing
The only baggage that you can bring...
Not the easy thing...
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can't leave behind
And if the darkness is to keep us apart
And if the daylight feels like it's a long way off
And if your glass heart should crack
And for a second you turn back
Oh no, be strong
Walk on, walk on
What you got they can't steal it
No they can't even feel it
Walk on, walk on...
Stay safe tonight
You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed to be seen
You could have flown away
A singing bird in an open cage
Who will only fly, only fly for freedom
Walk on, walk on
What you've got they can't deny it
Can't sell it - or buy it
Walk on, walk on
You stay safe tonight
And I know it aches
How your heart it breaks
You can only take so much
Walk on, walk on
Home... Hard to know what it is if you've never had one
Home... I can't say where it is but I know I'm going
Home... That's where the hurt is
And I know it aches
And your heart it breaks
And you can only take so much
Leave it behind
You've got to leave it behind
All that you fashion
All that you make
All that you build
All that you break
All that you measure
All that you feel
All this you can leave behind
All that you reason
All that you care
It's only time
And I'll never fill up all my mind
All that you sense
All that you speak
All you dress up
All that you see...
All you create
All that you wreck
All that you hate
If you're curious, U2 has posted a version of the "Walk On" video on its Web site. The video, shot in Brazil, features Bono wearing a t-shirt depicting Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi herself appears briefly (via television footage) at the end of the video. Note: U2 has recently restricted the full-length version of the video to registered users. You'll have to login to view the entire clip.
Despite the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is a courageous and inspiring leader, the situation in Burma has not improved. Suu Kyi has been awarded no fewer than 56 international humanitarian/peace prizes and awards, yet her goal of establishing a free and democratic Burma has not been attained.
I have visited the country twice, first in 2003 and again in 2005. During both trips I discussed politics and freedom with Burmese citizens regularly (though generally cautiously since it is formally against the law for them to speak with foreigners about politics). I spoke with monks, teachers, students, businessmen and women, and several unemployed laborers. Conversations almost inevitably shifted to politics and freedom. Admittedly, there is often a naive belief among citizens that a free and democratic Burma would result in instant economic prosperity, an abundance of jobs, etc. Still, despite their often utopian view of life outside the country's borders, the Burmese people deserve the chance to discover the realities of self-rule, to struggle with the challenges inherent in a free society.
The problem, of course, is that effecting political change via nonviolent struggle is anything but easy. Violence is almost always the easier option. For nonviolent struggle to work, Burma needs the support of her friends and neighbors. We, the citizens of the world living in freedom today, must speak out. We must become more active, more aware, more concerned. We must lobby our own governments to come to the aid of the Burmese people and encourage other nations to do the same. More creative approaches must be explored; if we merely sit and wait for things to change, they never will.
While it is beyond my scope here to provide a detailed analysis of how the international community has - or might - address the situation in Burma, I felt it worth sharing several highlights. Certainly, the situation is complex and the answers elusive. That little has changed nearly two decades after the 1988 uprising underscores this fact. Sanctions and occasional reprimands of Burmese officials are steps the international community has taken. Effects have been slight. While some say this confrontational approach is ineffective, that "engaging" current leaders is the only realistic means of effecting change, others claim the vice needs tightening. Indeed, China appears to be the Burmese government's lifeline. Europe and North America can slap Burma with trade restrictions until the end of time; as long as goods flow freely across the Chinese border, such embargos will have little effect. Neighboring Thailand is another source of contention. Where there is money to be made for the Thais, human rights abuses in Burma - though publicly deplored - are often tolerated by current Thai leaders. Burma's membership in the internationally recognized Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a potential point of leverage. Concerns voiced by member nations about human rights violations and the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi resulted in Burma forgoing its right to serve as chair and host to the 2006 ASEAN summit. Even now, pressure to reform is mounting.
Despite the complexity of the situation, an obvious first step in addressing the issue is that more of us begin to care. We who were born in freedom get so wrapped up in the joys and struggles of our own lives that we often forget about the suffering of others. Burma is a country of millions - people as warm, intelligent, and capable as any. Yet the freedoms of these people are restricted, opportunities to shape their own destinies severely limited. We should crawl into our beds at night thankful for the freedoms we enjoy but never satisfied until others are afforded the same opportunities and rights.
I cannot predict the future and do not know what life will be like for citizens of Burma a decade from now. But I maintain hope that the country will be free. I will likely never see many of my Burmese acquaintances again, and I will never know Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet I shiver when I consider what freedom would mean for each of them. Should Suu Kyi and her supporters succeed in their quest to attain freedom without resorting to violence, it will be - in my opinion - a remarkable moment in the history of humankind.
Composite Image Notes
The image sequence used in this composite:
- Independence Monument in Rangoon, Burma - described in my "Mingalaba, Myanmar!" slideshow
- Suu Kyi - depicted in a photograph obtained from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance Web site (www.idea.int)
- Flower-bearing child at a floating market on Inle Lake
- Suu Kyi and husband Michael Aris in Burma, 1973 - published in Freedom from Fear and Other Writings
- Ashinvicita - a monk I met in Rangoon - I've shared his story in both the "Mingalaba, Myanmar!" and "Best of Southeast Asia" slideshows
- Suu Kyi in hat - taken from the cover of the 1998 Penguin publication of Letters from Burma
- Seven-hour-old Burmese child, a photo taken at the father's request
The following sources were consulted during development of this text:
- Aung San Suu Kyi. Freedom from Fear and Other Writings. Edited by Michael Aris. 2nd ed., revised. New York: Penguin, 1995. (Includes essays by friends and scholars.)
- Aung San Suu Kyi. Voice of Hope. New York City: Seven Stories Press, 1997. (Includes conversations with Alan Clements.)
- Martin, Looby, Clark, Cummings. Myanmar (Burma). 8th ed. New York: Lonely Planet Publications, 2002. (General guidebook; includes discussion of Burma travel debate.)
- Associated Press. U2 rocker Bono slams Europe for doing little against Myanmar. May 20, 2004. Retrieved from www.keepmedia.com.
- Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Web site: www.dassk.com
- Nobel Biography on Suu Kyi: www.nobel.se
- U2 Web site: "Walk On" single release notes (recently removed).