Aung San Suu Kyi – A Better Kind of Politics

Human history can be seen as a centuries-long struggle between two distinct types of human being – the psychologically normal majority of humanity who are capable of altruism and compassion, and a small psychologically disordered minority whose pathology renders them capable only of violence and greed. For most of history, and in many places still, the ruthlessness of the pathological minority has allowed them to dominate the psychologically normal majority.

The psychology of psychopaths and narcissists kills the spirits of normal human beings. Exploitation, subjugation, dehumanisation, hypocrisy, hatred, and fear are the basis on which they order the societies they control. Soul murder, alongside physical murder, is the hallmark of their reign. Given this reality, the leaders who inspire us most are those who recognise that the struggle for democracy is both a political and a spiritual one. Such leaders strive to fulfil our collective longing for a political system that protects the dignity of every individual. One such leader is Aung San Suu Kyi.   

Burma’s Struggle for Democracy

Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks that stand against ruthless power.

                                                            Aung San Suu Kyi

Burma gained its independence from Britain on 4 January 1948. Just six months before, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, one of the architects of Burmese independence, had been assassinated along with half his cabinet. For the next dozen years, Burma’s fragile democracy struggled for survival as communists and armed ethnic insurgents seized large parts of the country. Then, in March 1962, General Ne Win seized power. The new military government abolished political parties, suspended the constitution, nationalised private enterprises and closed all independent newspapers. Decades of incompetent military rule were to follow, leading to Burma being granted Least Developed Nation status in 1987. Twenty five years of military rule had impoverished the country.

It was into this desperate situation that Aung San Suu Kyi returned in 1988 to look after the ailing mother. Just months after her arrival, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets of cities across Burma to demand an end to Ne Win’s dictatorship and a return to democracy. In the midst of a violent crackdown, Ne Win resigned, promising elections and a transition to multiparty democracy. Due to her father’s renown, Aung San Suu Kyi quickly became a focus for the democracy movement. In the promised elections, held on May 27 1990, the party she co-founded, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won an overwhelming victory. Despite the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi and the leadership of her party were by then under house arrest or imprisonment, the NLD and its allies won 94% of seats. Tragically, the response of the military junta was to nullify the result and refuse to hand over power.

photo credit: RubyGoes via photopin cc

photo credit: RubyGoes via photopin cc

Aung San Suu Kyi was to be subjected to three periods of house arrest over the next twenty two years: from July 1989 to July 1995; from September 2000 to May 2002; and from May 2003 to November 2010. Even during her periods of release, the military government did not allow her to travel within Burma outside of Rangoon. During these long periods of detention, she won the Nobel Prize for the cause of Burmese democracy, and suffered the heartbreak of prolonged separation from her husband and children. Her husband, Michael Aris died in March 1999 after a short illness. The junta refused him a visa to visit, hoping his illness would force Aung San Suu Kyi to leave the country for good.

She was under house arrest again in 2007 when Buddhist monks launched the Saffron Revolution. In an acknowledgement of her leading role in Burma’s spiritual struggle for democracy, a procession of monks marched past her home.

Since her release in November 2010, Burma has entered a period of hope. In August 2011 Aung San Suu Kyi was invited to meet the new head of state Thein Sein. Shortly afterwards the government announced the setting up of a human rights commission and the legalisation of trade unions, began the release of political prisoners, allowed the NLD to re-register as a political party, and announced by-elections. In April 2012 the NLD won 43 of the 45 seats they contested. In May 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues finally took their seats in parliament. While Burma’s military still remains firmly in control, hope has at long last re-entered Burmese politics.

Truth, Justice and Compassion as the Opposite of Fear

Aung San Suu Kyi has explicitly described the struggle for democracy in Burma as a spiritual struggle. In her essay ‘Freedom from Fear’, written in 1989 before first period of detention, she wrote “Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity… A people who would build a nation in which strong, democratic institutions are firmly established as a guarantee against state-induced power must first learn to liberate their own minds from apathy and fear.”

The history of tyranny in the twentieth century records many instances of human failure in the face of fear.

In the Soviet Union, Antonina Golovin recalled the day that she and her family were deported to the Soviet Gulag during Stalin’s collectivisation campaign, and the numbing effect that terror had on their neighbours and friends:

“I remember the grey wall of silent people who watched us walk towards the cart. No one moved or said anything … No one hugged us, or said a parting word…. they just stood there and stared in silence…. They were our friends and neighbours – the people I had grown up with. No one approached us. No one said fare well… They were afraid[1].”

In Mao’s China, businessman Robert Loh recalled how his friends and colleagues responded when he was subjected to public humiliation during one of Mao’s campaigns of terror. As he was paraded in front of his former colleagues, some jeered at him, some spat and others tried to hit him. Loh suddenly realised that it was those people who had been most friendly with him who were now attacking him most vehemently:

‘At first, this cut me deeply, but then I realised that precisely because they had been friendly to me, they would be the ones threatened the most and for their own safety they would strain to show that they no longer had anything but hatred and contempt for a capitalist criminal like me.[2]

And in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, we find the tragic example of how fear can drive people to commit unspeakable atrocities. S-21 was a torture centre in Phnom Penh during Pol Pot’s reign, where twenty thousand people are believed to have been tortured. Many of the torturers at S-21 were children, terrified into conducting unspeakable acts day after day. Khiev Cheh, a torturer at S-21, describes the fear he lived under:

“Life in S-21 was terrible. We dared not converse with each other. We could not trust anyone, even our closest friends…A small mistake, for example, falling asleep or leaning against a wall, could lead to death.[3]

Around one in three of the children forced to act as torturers in S-21 were themselves arrested, tortured and killed.

Moral Courage

Aung San Suu Kyi’s life story is more than a conventional narrative of politics and power. Her life is a testament to the courage needed to wrestle power from psychopathic leaders, and a reminder of the human cost there is in doing so. She stands as proof that on this earth there are ordinary human beings who are prepared to endure enormous suffering at the hands of the psychopathic minority in order to retain their humanity.

The principles she has stood for unyieldingly for the last quarter of a century reflect the values of the majority of humanity – and are the antithesis of the values of psychopaths and narcissists. Her concept of democracy as a system of government designed to protect the dignity of every individual; her commitment to non-violence as the most effective means to defeat tyranny; and her model of a political leader as someone who appeals “not so much to extremists as to the great majority of ordinary citizens who wish to pursue their own lives in peace and prosperity … “

She has said repeatedly that she does not wish to be seen as an exceptional individual; that she sees herself very much as part of a movement. And of course she is right. She is part of a movement of people across Burma, from all ethnic groups, who have refused to succumb to fear in the face of the junta’s terror. And she is part of a global movement of dissidents whose non-violent stand for truth, justice and compassion has toppled tyrants.

Aung San Suu Kyi is one of these great companions. Her struggle is a struggle for democracy guided by ethical values. Her form of ethical politics is one of the highest callings of humanity. As she has said herself she is not a saint, but simply a sinner who keeps on trying. And in that trying she shows us how to change the world.


[1] Orlando Figes, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, Penguin Books, 2007:95

[2] Frank Dikotter, The Tragedy of Liberation, Bloomsbury, 2013:168

[3] Khamboly Dy, A History of Democratic Kampuchea, Documentation Centre of Cambodia, 2007:50

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