Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and a former parliamentary candidate in the City of Durham. He is the author of Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads, which was published this month. He has visited Burma and its borders more than 40 times and taken senior politicians, including Andrew Mitchell and John Bercow, on fact-finding visits to the borders.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Britain this week is a reflection of the extraordinary turn of events in Burma in recent months. Less than a year ago, such a visit was inconceivable.
Twenty-four years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi left her home in Oxford to return to Rangoon to nurse her dying mother. She told her husband, academic Michael Aris, and two young sons that she would be back soon. Instead, as the movement for democracy unfolded in a series of mass protests against Ne Win’s regime in 1988, the people turned to her, as the daughter of Aung San, the leader of Burma’s independence who was assassinated in 1947, to lead them.
On 26 August 1988, hundreds of thousands of people turned out to hear her address them at the Shwedagon Pagoda. On 12 September 1988, she wrote in The Independent:
“Moments of horror, anger and sheer disbelief are engendered in me by what is happening in Burma. Yet above all is the conviction that a movement which has arisen so spontaneously from the people’s desire for full human rights must prevail … I have a responsibility towards my country, both as my father’s daughter and by my desire to prevent further bloodshed and violence.”
That responsibility, however, was not a new-found discovery. In 1972, before getting married, she wrote to Michael Aris and said, presciently, “I ask only one thing. That should my people need me, you would help me do my duty by them.” A sense of duty and destiny had always been in her mind.
Although she was driven by duty, she could not have predicted the cost that would come with it. For the subsequent two decades, she spent most of the time under house arrest, separated from her family and from her supporters. In 1990, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), overwhelmingly won elections, but the military regime refused to accepts the results and intensified its grip on power. Thousands of her party activists were jailed. She survived assassination attempts, particularly at Depayin on 30 May 2003, when many of her supporters were beaten to death by the regime’s thugs. Throughout the past 24 years, she could have chosen to leave her country at any point, but she knew the regime would never allow her to return. When her husband was dying of cancer in 1999, she faced the impossible choice between going to be with him, or staying to fight her political struggle in Burma. The regime refused him a visa to visit her.
In November 2010, the regime held elections for the first time in twenty years, which were widely regarded as a complete sham: heavily rigged, they were held under a new constitution which gave the military 25 per cent of the parliamentary seats and barred Aung San Suu Kyi from participating. She remained under house arrest, and her party was deemed illegal. Her release shortly after the elections was generally regarded as window-dressing by the regime, a fig-leaf to the international community to buy them some legitimacy.
For the first eight months following her release, the regime showed no interest in talking to her and no prospect of reform. On 19 August last year, however, the new President, Thein Sein, astonished everyone by inviting her to Naypyidaw to meet him. That meeting proved a turning point. He had realised what his predecessors had long refused to accept: that Aung San Suu Kyi could not be crushed, sidelined or ignored, and that if the regime wanted to end its pariah status, it had to work with her.
Since then, hundreds of political prisoners, including the most high-profile activists, have been released, the regime has begun negotiating ceasefires with ethnic armed resistance groups, and restrictions on the media and civil society have been relaxed. The NLD was re-registered as a political party, and in April Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament as her party won 43 out of 45 seats contested in by-elections. Three British government ministers, International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, Foreign Secretary William Hague, and Prime Minister David Cameron have visited Burma recently, as have US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a steady flow of other world leaders.
Aung San Suu Kyi has said repeatedly that she trusts President Thein Sein and believes he is a man of integrity, sincere about reform. When I had the privilege of meeting her in January, I asked why she is so convinced about him, and she told me that when they met last August, their discussion was completely different from any meeting she had previously had with the regime. His willingness to discuss detail and substance impressed her. Clearly that is the reason she feels confident enough to travel abroad for the first time in 24 years – trusting the assurances that she will be able to return home to continue her political journey. Burma's General Election in 2015 is the next major landmark – if they are free and fair, there is no reason why she could not finally take up her rightful place as the people's choice to lead the country's government.
On Saturday, Aung San Suu Kyi collected the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991, and delivered her Nobel lecture. But she cautioned against “blind faith”, preferring to describe the current mood as one of “cautious optimism”. For the first time in two decades, there are grounds for hope, but there is still a very long way to go. Several hundred political prisoners remain in jail, the regime has introduced a new blacklist barring foreign activists and journalists from visiting the country, it has denied passports to some of the recently released dissidents, and it has not engaged yet in substantial legislative, institutional or constitutional reform. Aung San Suu Kyi's party holds only six per cent of the seats in the military-dominated Parliament, so the odds are still heavily stacked against her.
Most importantly, although the regime has begun to negotiate ceasefire talks with many ethnic armed groups, at the same time it has unleashed a brutal offensive against civilians in Kachin State, in northern Burma, displacing more than 75,000 people. Women are being raped, people used for forced labour, villages destroyed and civilians tortured and killed. Only when a meaningful peace process with the Kachin, and with all ethnic nationalities, begins, and a political dialogue is initiated between the government and the ethnic nationalities, can we talk about real change in Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Britain, and other parts of Europe, is a time for celebration – to honour her as a person of truly extraordinary courage and principle, and to dare to believe that perhaps, finally, there is a chance for a better future for Burma. It is not, however, a time for euphoria, and it is certainly not a time to think that our work is done and we can bid the people of Burma good luck. We must resolve to re-double our efforts to ensure that the signs of hope turn into genuine substantial change. We must encourage President Thein Sein to keep going on the path of reform, and to take the next steps of releasing all remaining political prisoners, ending the attacks in Kachin State, beginning a genuine peace process and political dialogue with all the ethnic nationalities, repealing or amending repressive laws and engaging in constitutional reform.
We must also ensure that the humanitarian needs of the whole country are met, and that we support initiatives for national reconciliation. Recent sectarian violence between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya in western Burma has left thousands displaced without shelter, food and water. There is an urgent need for emergency aid and, longer-term, support for inter-religious and inter-ethnic dialogue. Since 1996, over 3,700 villages have been destroyed and a million people internally displaced in eastern Burma alone. Over 140,000 are refugees in camps in Thailand. Although the international community has supported the refugees for thirty years, in recent years significant cuts in funding have been made, resulting in severe reductions in food rations, with serious health implications. Earlier this month Aung San Suu Kyi visited the camps along the Thai-Burmese border for the first time, and expressed concern about the impact of funding cuts. In her Nobel Peace Prize lecture on Saturday, she highlighted this concern again:
“Can we afford to indulge in compassion fatigue? Is the cost of meeting the needs of refugees greater than the cost that would be consequent on turning an indifferent, if not a blind, eye on their suffering? I appeal to donors the world over to fulfill the needs of these people who are in search, often it must seem to them a vain search, of refuge.”
Now is the time to invest in the lives of the refugees, to ensure that when the time comes for them to go home, they can do so in good health, security and with skills to contribute to the reconstruction of their country and the reconciliation of its peoples.
Aung San Suu Kyi is, rightly, being given the honour of addressing both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall on Thursday. She will have meetings with the Prime Minister and others in government. But by far the best way of honouring her would be if Britain heeded her words, and redoubled its support for the needs of all of her people, inside the country and those displaced along its borders, so that together they can build a better future for Burma. Her visit is historic and very welcome, but it marks a potential turning-point, rather than a conclusion, to her country’s many decades of struggle for freedom and peace.