BBC’s Reith Lecture series with Aung San Suu Kyi won’t be aired until tomorrow, but already there is a flurry of discussion about whether she is changing her renowned position on non-violence. The lectures were secretly recorded in Burma and then presented before a studio audience this past week before they air for the general public. The Nobel Laureate stunned the audience when she implied “it’s possible” she would not rule out violent resistance as an effective way of creating change in Burma. She later expanded on her position and said, “I have said in the lectures I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but practical and political reasons.”
This may seem shocking coming from the woman who is viewed as the Gandhi of Burma, but the reality is that she is not changing her position. She has always held a view of resistance that centrally values the process of the struggle, “the revolution of the spirit.” However, by saying she doesn’t rule out violent struggle, she is being honest and, importantly, not discrediting the ethnic armed resistance occurring in Burma at present.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s father was the respected military leader Aung San who was the main instrumental leader in bringing an end to colonial rule in Burma. He worked to unite groups across the country and prepare for democratic change, but was assassinated before his vision could be fulfilled. Coming from this background, she has an understanding that military use in and of itself is not wholly corruptible; it is the mindset about military use that is important. She said in her 1991 essay “Freedom from Fear”:
The words used by Jawaharlal Nehru to describe Mahatama Gandhi could well be applied to Aung San: ‘The essence of his teaching was fearlessness and truth and action allied to these, always keeping the welfare of the masses in view.’
Aung San Suu Kyi’s goal is very similar to her father’s. She wants to bring all ethnic groups and sectors of society together to find a peaceful means of reconciliation with which to build a democratic society. Aung San Suu Kyi, even though she is a proponent of non-violence, cannot dismiss the efforts of Burma’s armed ethnic resistance. Whenever she is free she works to reach out to Burma’s ethnic communities. In response to this attention, many ethnic leaders say they heartily support and share Aung San Suu Kyi’s vision of peaceful national reconciliation.
Because of their remote locations, Burma’s ethnic armed resistance does not receive a lot of international attention and often are labeled as “rebel armies” without understanding the nuances of the situation. Burma’s various ethnic groups comprise roughly 30% of the population, and almost all have their own armies with which they have been using to protect their people and push for basic rights within the country. Burma’s military regime, dominated by the main Burman ethnic group, has always responded to Burma’s ethnic communities with severe human rights abuses. Burma’s military regime only cares about destroying opposition and controlling natural resources, and since the generals hold racist views against the ethnic communities, they feel no qualms in using widespread tactics such as sexual violence, forced labor, torture, and extrajudicial killings. Around 3,700 villages have been destroyed in eastern Burma in the past 15 years. For more information, the recent UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Burma gives a good overview of the human rights situation. The realities of oppression that ethnic communities in Burma face are on a different level than what people in the cities of Rangoon and Mandalay live with and Aung San Suu Kyi recognizes she needs to have a holistic view of the country.
A good friend of mine from the Karen ethnic group told me once:
We have little or no choice, we have to continue to resist and to try to protect our communities against the Burmese army who continue to rape and torture our family members.
This sentiment is a common one I often heard living and working with many ethnic groups on the Thai-Burma border. Their goal is protection of their families and communities. They would prefer not to fight, but feel they do not have other options.
Before the recent outbreak of conflict in northern Burma’s Kachin area, tension had been building for a while between the Kachin Independence Army and the military regime. The Kachin Independence Army postponed fighting as long as possible. Again and again they reached out to the military regime for peaceful reconciliation that would allow ethnic people to have basic rights in the new government. However, their pleas for genuine peace and democracy were consistently rejected by the military.
Soon Aung San Suu Kyi will begin her tour outside of Rangoon, reaching audiences that might not share her non-violent approach to creating change in Burma. This is a huge gesture of reaching out to Burma’s diversity and trying to bring groups together. She sees the movement as one—armed and non-armed groups working together with the same goal of peace. While tactics may vary, what is shared between many armed and non-armed groups is a common attitude against vengeance and domination and a dedication for finding harmonious solutions that protect people. She has not changed her position on being a proponent of non-violence, but in her work to unite Burma, she is also recognizing that fearlessness, truth, and action can be found in various ways.
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