The Measurement of Democracy in Myanmar (formerly Burma)
It was November 12, 2010, the day Burmese people had been waiting for - the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. The previous May, the American citizen John Yettaw had trespassed upon her home, two weeks before she had originally been scheduled to be released. This resulted in an extension of her house arrest. Now, thousands of people occupied the roads near her house and near NLD (National League for Democracy) Headquarters to give her a warm welcome, even though they might have the risk of being broken up by the government ‘s security force, as sometimes happens. Around a hundred journalists spent the night in front of her house since she was not released on that day. The reason the authorities gave was that November 12 was a public holiday. More people gathered again the next day on November 13, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from the house arrest. A woman from the crowd offered her beautiful orchids and she wore them in her hair immediately with smiles of thanks. People know very well what she likes and how powerful she is.
Actually, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the winner of 1991 Noble Prize for Peace for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights in Myanmar. Her release on November 13 was the fourth time she had been freed from house arrest. She was first placed under house arrest in July, 1989 and though freed six years later, she was again imprisoned in 2000. Two years later, she was released again, but rearrested and put under house arrest for the third time after the Depayin Massacre in 2003. The massacre was a hell like planned attack by the authorities. At that time, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was traveling in upper Myanmar for the democracy campaign. According to the news from reliable sources, authorities had freed some prisoners with long sentences just so they could commit the cruel attacks on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, her party members and the people who supported them. The later news said those attackers were then killed to shut their mouths.The attacks were too cruel to be imagined and I want to express with my shaking heart what I heard and what I read from an article where some witnesses talked about the attacks.
The horrible attackers were holding weapons of hell - pointed iron rods, wooden bats, iron bars, bamboo sticks - and the attacks mainly aimed at the head. The attackers were also shouting unbearable and unspeakable abuses. The bloody killing field was too savage, with the wounded, dying men and women victims moaning and wailing in pain, shrieking in agony, and crying out for help. The attackers also charged the monks and novices who were supporters of the campaign. After almost all the victims were horribly tortured and killed, about eighty policemen, holding shields and wooden clubs, came to the killing field. A witness wrote that the policemen threw the bodies of the dead and injured, as if they were garbage, into the trucks. He added that he could clearly see that the policemen had pushed the trucks into the rice field, setting them up as if they had overturned. He also noted that two other Helix pickup trucks were set up to look like they had had ahead-on collision and the police took pictures of them with video and still cameras, for the record.
I also want to share about how Daw Aung San Suu Kyi escaped being killed by the attackers. According to my friend of native near this event , while attackers were approaching her car, her driver drove over the road blocked with zigzagged bumpers with barbwire until the tires became flat and he drove into the police station where they could not be denied protection from the violence. I want to honor the smart chauffeur for his hero-like adventure!
Women have been involved in politics in Myanmar since the British ruled what was then Burma over one hundred years ago. During British times the first Burmese Women’s Association was established in 1919. It represented promoting the role of women in Burma. In the 1920s print media promoted females’ participation in the political arena in the fight against colonialism. A number of independent women’s organizations were formed. The Burmese Women’s Movement, originally nonpolitical, was developed into a semi-political organization calling for Burma’s independence. The woman in the leading role at that time, Daw Mya Sein, was highly educated. She was an Oxford Scholar who represented Burmese women at a special Burma Round Table Conference organized by the Irish government in 1931 to negotiate a new constitution for Burma. Whenever they felt injustice, women activists bravely participated in demonstrations and made courageous speeches for freedom for all. When they were arrested, other women stepped up and continued their tasks until they could make the changes they asked for. They were even able to make a place for a woman in the parliament.
It is frustrating indeed that while women’s roles are rising continuously around the world, women’s role in Myanmar nowadays has not been found in power sharing within the governmental structure. This is true even though the skills, knowledge, attitudes and educational backgrounds of some women are incomparably high. In fact, the people of Myanmar had made a huge effort to build a better nation by voting in a powerful and globally popular woman in the 1990 election. That woman was Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Before her speeches about freedom and human rights, most of the people of Myanmar did not know about democracy, which was hidden in the state by the dark age. When she lit the light of the democracy in Myanmar in 1988, huge, colorful waves of people appeared in demonstrations all over the country.
Since that time, people started to learn from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about the difference between liberalization and centralization. The expectation of freedom among the population has been growing for more than two decades. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made so many examples of freedom in speeches that she was placed under arrest and was not able to accept her Noble Prize for Peace in person. Her second and the youngest son, Alexander Aris, accepted the award on her behalf and made a speech for the occasion. In his speech he implied that his mother would accept the Nobel Prize for Peace, not in her own name, but in the name of all the people of Myanmar. He said the prize belongs not to her but to all those men, women and children who continue to sacrifice their well being, their freedom and their lives in pursuit of democracy in Myanmar. He was definitely right. During two decades thousands of people of Myanmar have been sentenced to death or have received sentences in jail that have been short, long or even life long and beyond, depending on the degree of their support for a democratic government.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won 59% of the national votes and 81% (392 of 485) of the seats in Parliament in 1990. Yet, instead of a transmission of power to her and her party, she remained under house arrest in Myanmar for almost fifteen of the twenty years from July 20, 1989 until her release on November 13, 2010, after the November 7 elections. This was part of the junta’s plan to make its own Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) victorious. I heard that a woman from the USDP participated in the elections and won a place in the parliament. The thing is, she will stand for their side and has no clues of chances for democracy and human rights.
According to their propaganda, the government says they are heading towards a new, democratic nation. If so, why are thousands of political prisoners who were asking for democracy and trying for the release of pro-democracy political prisoners ahead of them still in prisons? Some of them were given long sentence that seem longer than their life span. When I read some lines from the referendum in 2008 that interested me, I found it funny that more than fifteen people can demonstrate for their demand, but they have to apply for the demonstration. Is it a real democracy or a trap? I wonder. I am even taking a chance to write this article, which threatens me with my freedom of press. So if you don’t see me here for long, I might be sent to the place where the pro democracy ones gather.
After journalists wrote about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from her last house arrest on November 13, 2010, the publication of those journals was banned for two weeks until they agreed to write articles making Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party infamous, although it is impossible to change people’s trust in her. When the news of her release was shown with her photo in those journals, the sale was so huge that no copies were left on the shelves at the big or small shops. Many people had invested to buy one copy and they made many photocopies about the news of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and sold them at the crowded traffic lights with many cars and buses stopping at a red light. They could surely make a profit from it.
Now people inside and outside of the prisons are waiting for the democratic government which Daw Aung San Su Kyi designed and won in the landslide victory by the true desire of the people in 1990. She is the light and hope of the people of Myanmar. If she were transferred the power from the junta, she would establish a democratic government which would be warmly welcomed by international communities, especially modern nations. The political prisoners, men and women who fought for freedom and human rights of the people of Myanmar, would be freed and united together with the people outside who have been trying and waiting for their return. The sanctions from international communities would be replaced with the international cooperation and international relations would be promoted.
That is the dream of the Burmese people for gaining authentic democracy and human rights for men and women of all ages and all communities. Many women are being sexual abused or are victims of domestic abuse in parts of the country. Only some of the cases reach the courts and there are many cases behind the courts because of the victims’ fear of the criminals and inadequate trust to the courts’ decisions.
I want to talk about a sad story that happened near my village in 1988 after the big demonstrations were stopped by shots to death and arrests. The junta took security seriously around the country, including my neighboring village . People there were farmers and fishermen who are modest and honest It was really unfortunate for the villagers that a military force led by a brutal captain was assigned there. The captain announced an order that all people who passed through their camp had to sing, otherwise those people were acknowledged as enemies and would be shot. People obeyed the order, whether they wanted to or not. One day a group of fishermen passed the camp singing a song. The spirit of cruelty rose from the captain who was drunk and the singing from the innocent villagers who just obeyed his crazy order made him annoyed. He called them before him and beat them with bamboo stick and made them continue singing in pain. One of the men, who I later learned was a relative of my grandfather, fell to the ground. The captain became crazy, telling that man he was not strong enough to be a man. As an extra punishment, he kicked the man ’s stomach violently, still forcing him to go on singing in pain. The man did it until it gradually ended with his last breath. Later he was buried as a normal death. Some people told his family that they could sue the brutal captain because the authorities announced that people can inform the court for the finding of such kind. His family did it and the inspectors came to the village with a doctor. They unburied the corps and checked the body. The result they announced was the victim was dead not because of the torture but because of disease. The last time I heard about that crazy captain was that he became a high official in the military force. When people can trust on democracy in Myanmar, such problems will be settled, I believe. Again, the answer is sharing or transferring power to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is trusted by the people of Burma.
I still remember some words from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech on November 13, 2010. That day, the crowd was so huge that people from the back could not move forward to get closer to her. She said, “It will be a good idea for the front people who are sitting front to share the place with the people who are waiting to get to the front line.” It was amazing to see that people did it immediately, following her guideline. What was on people’s mind, including mine, was it would be a good idea share the power or transfer it into the hands of the rightfully elected government for which people have been waiting for more than two decades.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.