19 Jun 2012

Hard questions for Aung San Suu Kyi as she returns 'home'

The daughter of Burmese democracy is being feted like a rock star and treated like a president as she tours Europe. Today, on her 67th birthday, Aung San Suu Kyi is going “home” to Oxford for what will be a deeply poignant and bittersweet visit.

The daughter of Burmese democracy is being feted like a rock star and treated like a president as she tours Europe. Today, on her 67th birthday, Aung San Suu Kyi is going “home” to Oxford for what will be a deeply poignant and bittersweet visit.

It was in Oxford that she met her late husband and raised her two sons, with whom she may be reunited today. If that happens, she will probably see her two grandchildren for the first time, as family and friends gather to celebrate her birthday. Powerful stuff.

After 15 years under house arrest, by successive military juntas, preaching non-violence and freedom from fear, Ms Suu Kyi is widely regarded as being up there in the trinity of living saints, along with Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

Today, of all days, she will doubtless be asking herself the question so many people – especially women: wives, mothers, daugthers – would want to ask her: was it really worth all the sacrifice? Today, in Oxford, that will surely be the hardest of questions to answer.

There have been long years of loneliness, exiled, interned in her dilapidated lakeside house in Rangoon, cut off from her family, unable even to see her husband, Michael Aris, before his death from cancer in 1999. Ms Suu Kyi had a radio and a piano for company – until she broke that in a self-confessed fit of rage.

For two decades, the generals who’ve now ruled Burma for exactly half a century – and who ignored her landslide 1990 election victory – determined that Aung San Suu Kyi should be shut her away from the world, the people of Burma and her family.

In August 2000, in an American TV interview, she responded to the “was it worth it?” question. “It’s not a sacrifice, it’s a choice,” she said. “If you choose to do something, then you shouldn’t say it’s a sacrifice, because nobody forced to you do it.”

Ms Suu Kyi believes that being faced with this choice was her destiny, and that really, she had no choice. Facing down the military regime who had stolen power from the people was her dynastic duty, as the daughter of the great General Aung San, assassinated as he steered the country towards independence from Britain in 1948.

Today though, there’s an additional twist to the “sacrifice” question which will make it even harder for Aung San Suu Kyi to answer.

Aung San Suu Kyi holds up a picture of her father presented to her at the LSE earlier today

It is that the dramatic changes under way in Burma have happened despite her, not because of her. In what is perhaps a stroke of evil genius designed to cut “The Lady” down to size, the Burmese regime has, in fact, made the “was it all worth it?” question strangely irrelevant.

The “Burmese Spring” – during which the junta has ushered in reforms and freedoms and released most political prisoners, including their famous lakeside hostage – happened because the generals reached out to her, not her to them.

There is much speculation as to what may have triggered this change of tack. Whatever the reason, it is unlikely that western sanctions forced their hand. For years, Aung San Suu Kyi encouraged Europe and the US to punish the regime economically. The sanctions – which held back development in Burma for years – led to terrible suffering. They changed nothing.

It is, sadly, much more likely that change in Burma is being wrought by a government manoeuvring for survival and leverage in a fast-changing world – not because it has been converted to a western-style democratic values, transparency and respect for human rights.

The generals seem to have woken up to realpolitik, and their being squeezed between the competing political and economic interests of China and India and the West. Maybe they also figured out that in today’s world they would be unlikely to get away with the mass murder and mass detention of pro-democracy demonstrators and that something just had to give, for the sake of self-preservation.

Aung San Suu Kyi warns of the fragility of the change now under way; the Burmese Spring could yet end abruptly. Just last week, Buddhist ethnic Burmans engaged in a killing spree among the Rohingya Muslim minority in western Burma. Liberalisation after decades of repression can unleash dangerous forces, but Ms Suu Kyi has been criticised for her “oblique” and “evasive” response to who how to rein in this threat.

Burma has been ravaged by ethnic insurgencies for the past 50 years and an upsurge in conflict could easily derail this fragile democracy project. The junta has failed to unite the country. Aung San Suu Kyi’s father was killed before he could. So what will she do?

It will likely fall to her, sooner or later, to work all this out. There is a strong possibility that the newly-elected National League for Democracy MP may find herself at the helm of a party which once again sweeps the board in elections in 2015. Today the NLD is a party made up of revolutionary veterans with impeccable credentials, but none has any experience in governing. And proper governance is now what the people of Burma need most.

Last year I spoke to an old Burma-hand friend whom I’ve known for years. Aung San Suu Kyi had been released a month or so earlier. “If the military threw up its hands and gave power to her,” my friend said, “they would be back in control in two years – and with public support.”

I called him again yesterday and asked whether, in the light of events since then, he might have tempered his view. “No,” he said bluntly.

Burma’s generals may have made the “was it all worth it?” question less relevant now than it was in the past. But as Aung San Suu Kyi reflects on the joys she missed out on over so many years, there are plenty of very hard questions to be asked and to ponder. Perhaps today’s not the day, though.

Jonathan Miller – who secretly interviewed Aung San Suu Kri in Rangoon 17 years ago – will be talking to her for tonight’s Channel 4 News.

Follow @millerC4 on Twitter