First, they held elections and we didn’t pay much attention because they weren’t our elections. But they jailed the winner and we did nothing because it was their country—they had their own quaint traditions, and generals always ruled there.
Meanwhile, she stands firm, like the candle whose flame sways, but whose light never diminishes.
Then they said she could leave her country, provided she wouldn’t return. But it was her land before it was theirs; her father helped liberate that country; and when she staked her claim to power, it was because the people wanted it that way. So she said no. They extended her prison term.
Their neighbours said we should understand their culture. Could she really run a government? As the years passed, we were told she may have won an election, but that was 20 years ago. Now, some of her supporters are dead, others are ailing, many are tired, and some have compromised. Everyone cannot run the marathon.
Meanwhile, a generation has been born which wouldn’t know she existed if the local newspaper had simply ignored her. But the generals continued to portray her as a force of evil, a dangerous witch who might lead them astray, keeping her name alive in collective memories.
And she stands firm, unshaken.
The international community then appoints emissaries whose job it is to apply pressure on the generals. Instead, one has business ties with a company that gets involved in a lucrative deal with the generals; the other cools his heels in a hotel room, watching the generals giving speeches on local television, while their troops whack the skulls of peaceful monks, and kill a photographer who records those assaults. Cyclone batters the country; the generals accept help late, and grudgingly.
She still stands firm, like the Statue of Liberty.
And then, even under their rules, the ones they framed to keep prolonging her stay in jail, the time runs out. Even by their unjust laws, it is time to free her. And mysteriously, a foreigner swims across, scales the walls of the house with the most important prisoner in the country, and meets her.
And instead of sacking the security officials who let the guard down (what if the intruder were an assassin?), she is brought before the court, accused of meeting a foreigner: Orwellian surrealism doesn’t get any better than in Myanmar, a point the gifted pseudonymous author Emma Larkin has underscored in her chilling 2006 account, Finding George Orwell in Burma. When the trial opens, some foreigners—journalists and diplomats—are allowed, but only just. And world leaders try to write reasonable letters to the generals, saying she could not be blamed for trespass when she is not in control of her life. It is her home, and yet not really hers; just as the generals run a government which was never theirs. She doesn’t have what is hers; they have what’s not theirs. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. The prison is your home, and the fortress becomes your prison. It is 25 years after 1984, but for Myanmar, the clock is probably stuck on 9, former dictator Ne Win’s favourite number.
The world invokes international law and precedents, as if these generals have ever obeyed either. Her lawyer calls the foreigner who swam across the lake “a fool”, but he is not the only one; the generals have correctly concluded that all of us are fools.
Indeed, the scandalous imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi by the thugs who rule Myanmar had no justification in 1988, when her National League for Democracy swept to power, and her continued detention shows the generals’ contempt for the world. And that means us.
Western leverage is limited, since it has imposed all the sanctions it can, and China won’t play, making sanctions ineffective. After the way the Iraq war was handled, the notion of military intervention to protect civilians through the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” has suffered such a severe setback that it will take a long time to recover.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) had welcomed Myanmar a decade ago, arguing its “softer” diplomacy (which essentially means playing endless rounds of golf) would work, and “constructive engagement” would reform the generals. But on Tuesday, the generals rebuffed Asean, too.
And the world turns to China, as if China, itself dreading the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre next week, has any moral authority to tell Yangon what to do.
That leaves India. There was a time when India allowed a dissident Myanmarese radio station from its soil. It called for Nelson Mandela’s release. Can it rise to the occasion, spreading a bit of democracy in its neighbourhood?
Or, as the polymath Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff put it so harrowingly in London in 2003: “Or, shall we wait, and watch, as Aung San Suu Kyi remains alone, grows old, and dies?”
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org