I picked up this book of hers at a used book sale from a sense of duty. Of course I knew her story and expected, well, yada yada yada. Eventually I made myself actually read it. And I was deeply moved and impressed.
Her father Aung San was Burma’s independence leader, assassinated at 32, in 1947, just before independence came. He was apotheosized as the national hero.* Born in 1945, Suu lived the life of an ivory-tower scholar, mostly abroad; married a Brit; and had two sons.
In 1988 she returned to Burma to tend her dying mother. That same year saw massive unrest against the military dictatorship that had seized power in 1962. Thousands were massacred. Suu could not stand by, and soon she was leader of the National League for Democracy – and under house arrest. So she remained for most of the next quarter century. Suu could not be present to collect her Nobel Peace Prize; nor for her husband’s illness and death. (She would have been allowed to leave – but not to return.)
Meantime, in 1990, the regime held an election. They apparently expected an inconclusive and hence non-consequential result. (Such regimes typically seem delusional about popular opinion.) But Suu’s NLD won overwhelmingly. So the military just ignored the election (and arrested many of those elected).
The book, Freedom From Fear, published in 1995, is a sampling of Suu’s essays and speeches, with some material by others. The title’s import is obvious. While Suu has never been put in a dungeon, beaten, or tortured (as so many followers were), the physical danger has always been real. At one point she was actually about to be shot by soldiers. She faced them coolly until the order was countermanded.
But courage is not an absence of fear. Only a fool would be fearless confronting violence. Courage, rather, is acting in spite of the fear. That is what the Burmese regime’s opponents have done. It is what the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 did. It is what the Syrian people, in their thousands, are doing now.
But Suu is not merely courageous (and steadfast, eloquent, principled, and all that (not to mention beautiful)) but also (as this book shows) a deep political thinker, benefiting from all her years of study. In her very first 1988 public speech she set forth the precepts that would guide her and her movement ever after: personal commitment, discipline, unity, non-violence, multi-party democracy, basic human rights, and reconciliation. And in discussing freedom from fear, she isn’t talking just about regime opponents, but about the regime itself: “It is not power that corrupts, but fear.” In this case, fear of what might happen to them if they don’t hold on. It’s like riding a tiger. This too we see in Syria.
Suu has no time for the argument that economic development must precede democratization, understanding (along with Amartya Sen) how tyranny actually cripples economic progress. We see this debate again today focusing on China, supposedly showing authoritarianism good for economic growth. Yet (as I’ve written) China’s growth has been concentrated in the part of its economy totally unregulated by government. Freedom is the best economic stimulant. And anyway, as to Burma, the junta’s rule has been an economic catastrophe, certainly disproving that such repression somehow has its benefits.
Suu furthermore dissects the “Asian Values” trope (so prominent particularly in the ‘90s, but far from dead), holding that “Western” ideas of democracy and human rights are alien and inappropriate to Eastern societies, which are grounded in differing traditional cultural value systems. Suu correctly sees right through this as nothing but another shabby pretext for authoritarian elites to justify their oppressions.
In this context she also addresses the notion that America’s example actually reflects badly on democracy, since it engenders a raft of social pathologies that no “uninfected” society should want to emulate. (We hear this today from Muslim critics.) Having lived in America, Suu acknowledges its imperfections. But her vision is broad enough to understand what is so good about America and its democratic underpinnings. So, after recapping the usual indictment of American society, here is her beautifully expressed conclusion:
“No political or social system is perfect. But could such a powerful and politically diverse nation as the United States have been
prevented from disintegrating if it had not been sustained by democratic institutions guaranteed by a constitution based on the
assumption that man’s capacity for reason and justice makes free government possible and that his capacity for passion and
injustice makes it necessary?”
As I have written before, a new Burmese president, Thein Sein, seems at last to be leading the nation toward the democratic vision for which Aung San Suu Kyi has struggled for almost a quarter century. Now she has moved from house arrest into parliament. One may dare to hope that in due time she will take her proper place at the head of the nation.
* Asia has had legions of dead bigwigs’ daughters in political roles. Their record is mostly dismal. Aung San Suu Kyi is an exception that proves the rule.