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  • Burma's Quest for Democracy:An Introduction
  • Garry Woodard

Democrats around the world were delighted by the award of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Peace to Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's National League for Democracy. Held under house arrest by the military junta, since July 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi was unable to attend the prize ceremony in OsIo, yet her words and her example continue to inspire the Burmese people and all those who support its struggle for human rights and democracy. In the pages that follow we present an essay containing Aung San Suu Kyi's fullest statement to date of her political ideas. To provide our readers with some background on the situation in Burma, we have asked Garry Woodard of the University of Melbourne to contribute the brief introduction to her essay that appears below. A former Australian ambassador to both Burma and China, he has known Aung San Suu Kyi since 1974.

—The Editors

Has the Nobel Peace Prize Committee ever made so significant a decision as this year? All would have applauded if it had chosen Czechoslovak President Váiclav Havel, the symbol of the sea change in Europe. By choosing instead Havel's nominee, Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, the Committee accepted his invitation to regard "freedom as indivisible," to look forward, and to focus on the unfinished democratic revolution in Asia, where despite the region's economic dynamism, the democratic tide is running into serious obstacles.

Among the surviving totalitarian regimes of Asia, only Kim II-Sung's Democratic People's Republic of Korea can rival Ne Win's Burma in its determination to isolate itself from what is happening elsewhere. Yet Burma has a more honorable tradition to turn to. It was the first country to wrest independence from Britain after World War II, thanks largely to the skill and determination of its charismatic young leader, General Aung San, whom knowledgeable observers have compared to another great figure in postcolonial Asia, India's Jawaharlal Nehru. Despite Aung San's assassination on the eve of independence in 1947 (when his daughter Suu Kyi was just two years old), Burma initially was a regional leader. Had Aung San lived, his country would probably in due course have joined the British Commonwealth; Burma then would not have been able to turn its back on the world as it has done under General Ne Win, its dominant figure since 1962.

Living in an underpopulated, resource-rich country and mellowed by their strong Buddhist faith, the Burmese are unlikely revolutionaries. [End Page 3] Nevertheless, it was apparent when I visited Burma in November 1987 that the situation was highly volatile; the socialist economic system was bankrupt and the urban population chafed under tight police surveillance.

Into this potentially explosive situation entered Aung San Suu Kyi, the inheritor, chronicler, and guardian of the Aung San tradition. As early as 1974, she had been refused admission to her homeland, indicating the apprehension she aroused among the narrowly based ruling military clique under Ne Win. This was a year of workers' demonstrations and what have become known as the "U Thant riots," in which students unavailingly tried to use the burial of the former UN secretary general to alert the world to their desire for greater freedom and democracy.

In March 1988, Suu Kyi, who had been living in England with her British husband and their two sons, was permitted to come home to Burma to nurse her dying mother Daw Khin Kyi, who was revered as the country's "'First Lady" even though she shunned any ceremonial role under the military regime. It was inevitable that Suu Kyi would get caught up in the people's revolution that swept Burma in mid-1988 and had the regime tottering until it carried out a ruthless massacre in September 1988, an atrocity that far outdid the killings at Tiananmen Square nine months later.

The rest of the story is well-known: a promise by the army to hold "free and fair" elections; the acclaim garnered by Suu Kyi as leader of the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD) through her courage, eloquence, and charisma...


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