I’d just experienced one of those memorable once in a lifetime experiences and the awe of it all was still clear in mind as I negotiated Immigration and Customs lines in the shed that served as departure terminal in Yangon for the Socialist Republic of Myanmar. It was the 1970’s and I’d taken advantage of the customary twenty-four hour stopover permitted in those days en-route to Thailand and the countries of South-east Asia. It was nice to take a break from my audit assignment in Bangladesh.
I’d enjoyed the hospitality of the Tamada Hotel, which had been the President Hotel in British days, and even managed to get a smile from the door keeper placed at the front of the hotel to keep watch over comings and goings of rare foreigner visitors at that time, and make sure the government was informed so we could be followed around the city to see we didn’t act as agents of unwelcome change to their socialist system. We enjoyed a daily choice between The Guardian and the Working People’s Daily newspapers. They seemed to have identical news items, but at least they were printed in English.
My memorable experience was a visit in company of a local friend to the home of Aung San Suu Kyi. This visit was to her venerable Mother, and it was long before Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar to care for her then aged Mother. I remember well guards at the gate as that great lady was under constant supervision of the regime, and in hindsight it’s amazing we were permitted that visit. Hers had once been a stately home in British days with a grand view of the lake. The house was now in considerable state of disrepair, and view of the lake consisted of overgrown reeds well out into the lake area.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of one of Burma’s most cherished heroes, the martyred General Aung San, who led his country’s fight for independence from Great Britain in the 1940s and was killed for his beliefs in 1947. Suu Kyi has equalled her father’s heroics with her calm but passionate advocacy of freedom and democracy in the country now called Myanmar, a name chosen by one of the most insensitive and brutal military dictatorships in the world.
Suu Kyi (pronounced Soo Chee) was two years old when her father the de facto prime minister of newly independent Burma was assassinated. Though a Buddhist the predominant religion of Burma she was educated at Catholic schools and left for India in her mid-teens with her mother, who became the Burmese ambassador to India. Suu Kyi went to England where she studied at Oxford University. There she met Michael Aris, the Tibetan scholar whom she married. They had two sons, Alexander and Kim.
A watershed in her life was 1988, when Suu Kyi received a call from Burma that her mother had suffered a stroke and did not have long to live. Suu Kyi returned to Burma, leaving her husband and two children behind in England, having cautioned them years earlier that duty may one day call her back to her homeland.
She arrived back in Burma to nurse her mother at a time of a burgeoning pro-democracy movement, fuelled by the energy and idealism among the country’s young people. There were demonstrations against the repressive, one-party socialist government. Suu Kyi was drawn into the pro-democracy movement, which was snuffed out by SLORC, which seized power on September 18, 1988. Thousands of pro-democracy advocates were killed. http://www.dassk.com/index.php
But the day of my visit was not filled with memories of pro democracy students. The nation was under tight control, and Suu Kyi’s mother carefully guarded as a potential dangerous rallying point for those who nostalgically remembered the days of her husband General Aung San’s popular and prosperous leadership of new Burma free from colonial occupation. What a contrast between Burma which was the rice basket of Asia in those days, and the Myanmar of the time of my visit.
We sat and chatted about happy days spent in her role as Burmese Ambassador to India as we sipped tea together. Photos of Nehru and Indira Gandhi were prominent on the walls of her bungalow, and we went through album after album of this great lady in black and white print in the company of various world leaders of the time. We felt together the elation of those memories, and sadness of conditions under which she and her people now lived.
It was only later that her daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, not there at the time of my visit, took over a leadership role trying to inspire the ruling SLORC to bring about democratic change and free her people. In the process she had to give up her role as mother and wife in the service of her nation.
While it’s unlikely Aung San Suu Kyi will be successful in changing the self-seeking military regime’s way of thinking in her lifetime, her shining example will inspire others who will someday be successful in bringing freedom to those various cultural groups which make up modern Myanmar. She will be remembered in history along with her illustrious Father and Mother as beacons of democracy.
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