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From Prison to Parliament: Burma Pro-Democracy Leader Aung San Suu Kyi Wins Seat in Landmark Vote

Tuesday, 03 April 2012 10:05 By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! | Report & Video
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After more than 15 years in detention, Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has won a seat in parliament, sparking scenes of jubilation among supporters. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party had not participated in Burma’s politics since 1990, when it won a landslide victory in a general election but remained unrecognized by the military junta. We speak with Suu Kyi’s biographer, Peter Popham, a reporter with The Independent of London, who himself has been deported from Burma and has met twice with Suu Kyi. "It would have been extraordinary if [Suu Kyi] had lost. But the scale of the victory, winning almost every single seat they contested, is a terrific endorsement of her stand during the campaign and also her incredible persistence and patience over all these years," Popham says. As for the prospect of Suu Kyi mounting a bid for the Burmese presidency, Popham says, "I don’t think it’s beyond the bounds of possibility."

Amy Goodman: In a landmark vote, Burma’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has reportedly won her first bid for a seat in parliament, sparking scenes of jubilation among supporters. Official results are expected later this week. If confirmed, the vote could herald a new era for the country after decades of oppressive military rule. 

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has spent much of the past 20 years under house arrest and in detention. Her National League for Democracy party has not participated in Burma’s politics since 1990, when it won a landslide victory in a general election but remained unrecognized by the military junta.

After the initial results were in, Suu Kyi addressed her supporters outside the National League for Democracy headquarters in Rangoon. 

Aung San Suu Kyi: We hope that this will be the beginning of a new era, where there will be more emphasis on the role of the people in the everyday politics of our country. We also hope that we will be able to go further along the road towards national reconciliation. We would welcome all parties who would wish to join us in the process of bringing peace and prosperity to our country.

Amy Goodman: During the campaign, foreign journalists and international observers were given the freest access to monitor polls in years. But there were still some concerns of voting irregularities. The European Union and the United States have said the fairness of the outcome will be crucial in determining whether they lift economic sanctions against Burma.

In her speech to supporters, Aung Suu Kyi accused rivals of vandalizing National League for Democracy posters, padding election registers, and cases of voter intimidation.

Aung San Suu Kyi: We will point out all the irregularities that took place, not in any spirit of vengeance or anger, but because we do not think that these should be overlooked. We do not think that such practices should be encouraged in any way. And so, it is only with the intention of making sure that things improve.

Amy Goodman: Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, or NLD, say they won Burma’s elections by a landslide, claiming all but one of the 45 vacant seats. While the victory is seen as a major step forward for political reforms in Burma, the army and its allies, like the proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party, continue to dominate the 664-seat parliament.

In a statement, Aung San Suu Kyi urged supporters to show restraint in their celebrations. She said, quote, "It is natural [that] the NLD members and their supporters are joyous at this point. However, it is necessary to avoid manners and actions that will make the [other] parties and members upset. It is very important [that] NLD members take special care that the success of the people is a dignified one," she said. 

For more, we’re joined by Peter Popham, who has written a new biography calledThe Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi. As a foreign correspondent and commentator with The Independent of London, he covered South Asia in the late 1990s. Popham toured Burma as an undercover journalist several times since his first visit to the country in 1991. He interviewed Suu Kyi first when she was released from house arrest in 2002 and then met her again in 2011. He, himself, has been deported from Burma.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Peter.

Peter Popham: Good morning.

Amy Goodman: The significance of these elections?

Peter Popham: Well, it’s a terrific result for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. It’s not unexpected. There was—it would have been extraordinary if she had lost. But the scale of the victory, winning every single seat they contested, is a terrific endorsement of her stand during the campaign and also her incredible persistence and patience over all these years.

Amy Goodman: Talk about who Aung San Suu Kyi is, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, detained for more than 15 of the last 20 years.

Peter Popham: She was born in 1945, the daughter of Aung San, who was the founder of the Burmese army while Burma was still a British colony squashed between India and China. Aung San almost single-handedly negotiated Burma’s independence from Britain, and he would have become the first prime minister, but he was assassinated in 1947, when she was only two years old. So her life, from a very early age, was conditioned by the fact that her father was this heroic figure who was now gone and who became the sort of—the tragic founding father of independent Burma. And from a very early age, she wanted to do something with her life that would justify her father, that would, in a way, complete her father’s uncompleted work.

She spent the first 20 years of her adult life doing something completely different. She went to Oxford. She worked at the United Nations here in New York for nearly three years. Then she married a British academic called Michael Aris and settled down in Oxford as a part-time academic and a housewife, bringing up two children, and seemed to be fairly sort of settled in a domestic life there.

But then, in 1988, at the end of March, her mother had a severe stroke, and she flew back to Rangoon to take care of her. And while she was there, there were anti-regime demonstrations, became widespread because of the economic crisis in the country at the time. And after about four months in the country, she was prevailed on to become—to speak, first of all, at a mass meeting, and subsequently to become the figurehead of the democracy movement, which really didn’t have a clear leader up until that point. So, with no political experience of any sort, never having dabbled her toe in politics either in Burma or in Britain or anywhere else, suddenly she was chucked into the deep end and became the leader of the independence movement. And she—although she was put under house arrest for the first time in 1989, her party, under her leadership, won an amazing victory in the general election in 1990. She wasn’t allowed to stand as a candidate, but nonetheless it was her party, and they won, with their allies, something like 90 percent of the available seats.

Amy Goodman: And can you talk, before you move forward, about 1988, when she was there first taking care of her mother and then became this—well, this acknowledged political leader? What happened to the people and the protests then, the crackdown of the Burmese regime?

Peter Popham: Well, it was—the protests became more and more powerful. They destabilized the government. The dictator of the country, Ne Win, announced that he would resign and that he would change the political system to a multi-party democracy. And there was a kind of Burmese spring, which lasted just a few weeks, and it was ended very brutally when the army was brought in and slaughtered thousands and thousands of people, unarmed demonstrators on the streets of Rangoon and elsewhere, which was really the kind of the great, crucial sort of bloodletting of the whole process. The election was held a year-and-a-half after that, but that was kind of the—that has cast a shadow over Burmese history ever since.

Amy Goodman: And so, 1989, 1990, the elections—talk about how she was detained and how she has ruled from or led from detention.

Peter Popham: Well, she was—as I say, she was detained in July 1989, after the regime became more and more nervous about the amount of popularity she was gaining, the way her party was growing exponentially. They locked her up. They threw all of her closest colleagues in jail. And as I say, the party, with a kind of second-rank leadership, went on to win this election in 1990, but the regime simply ignored the result. They acted as if nothing had happened and carried on ruling. And many of those who had been elected MPs were either locked up or chased into exile. So, really, democracy, at that point in Burma, went into hibernation.

She was in detention for the next five years. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. But she was completely incommunicado really until 1995, when she was suddenly released as a sop to the Japanese government. But it was merely a sop; nothing else changed. And after a short while, the confrontation between her and her colleagues, on the one side, and the regime, on the other, once again resumed, and again she was locked up. And this process has been repeating over the past 20 years with kind of moments of hope and windows of opportunity.

2002, she was released, and that was when I flew to Rangoon to meet her. And that was one of the moments when it seemed that the regime was reaching out to her. There were—the U.N. envoy had managed to sort of broker peace talks, and there was a lot of talk about power sharing. But then, the following year, in 2003, when she was on a campaign tour near Mandalay out in the countryside, she and her convoy were attacked by a large number of thugs wielding crude instrument—crude weapons. And about 70 of her supporters were massacred, and she herself very narrowly escaped being killed. After that, she was again—first put in prison and then back in house arrest, where she remained, again, completely isolated from the world, without contact with her family, with her colleagues, with practically nobody at all, for seven-and-a-half years.

Amy Goodman: She has been called "the Mandela of Burma." There is a difference, in that she could have left the country at any time. She could have ended this detention. Why didn’t she leave?

Peter Popham: Yeah, I mean, that’s a crucial difference, is that the real desire of the regime all along has been to find a way to persuade her to give up and go home, go back to her family. And it was—as you can imagine, it was a cause of enormous anguish for this extremely devoted wife and mother to be separated from her family all those years. But it was the only—it was the only way to maintain the pledge which she had made to her country and the amount of trust that had been invested in her by her people. And I think that that was—that’s the key thing. And that’s the explanation of why she is held in such enormous regard to this day, is because the Burmese people recognize what she’s actually done, the amount that she has invested in them.

 

Amy Goodman: Talk about what happened to her husband, the choices she had to make, where her children are.

 

Peter Popham: Well, that was the—that was the most ghastly moment of the whole process, came in 1999, when it suddenly appeared that Michael, her husband, who had been working strenuously behind the scenes on her behalf for many years, was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. And it advanced very, very rapidly, and within three months he was at death’s door. And he tried, and many intermediaries tried, to get the Burmese government to give him a visa so that he could come back to Rangoon, and he and his wife could spend at least a few days together before he died. And they completely refused. All attempts, all appeals from the great and the good around the world were completely—fell on deaf ears. And I think the reason is—well, it’s clearly very hard-hearted, but the reason was that, again, they saw her personal crisis as being the best opportunity to persuade her to give up and go home, once again fatally underestimating her.

Amy Goodman: And so, Michael Aris, the scholar of Tibet and Bhutan, died in England.

Peter Popham: That’s right. Yeah, he died in hospital in Oxford at the end of March, I think it was, on his birthday in March 1999.

Amy Goodman: And Aung San Suu Kyi remained in detention in Burma.

Peter Popham: Correct, yeah.

Amy Goodman: Her sons live where?

Peter Popham: She wasn’t actually in detention at the time. She was free to move around Rangoon. But, as I say, if she had left Burma, the fear always was that once she was out of the country, they would revoke her citizenship, and she would never get back. And that would be the end of the story for her and for the Burmese regime.

Her sons—Alex, the older, and Kim, the younger one—were brought up by Michael in England during the years that she was under house arrest, with the help from Michael’s quite large and extremely warm and solid family and some Burmese volunteers. And obviously, they had many difficulties of their own, because of the way the family was broken up. But they’re now both upstanding men in their thirties.

Amy Goodman: Going back in time, for people to understand how modern-day Burma came into being—a number of networks refer to them—to Burma as "Myanmar," the capital of Rangoon as "Yangon," the military’s name for both of the city and the state. Why did they change the name, the military regime? 

Peter Popham: Well, in Burmese, it’s not that controversial, because both Burma and Myanmar historically have been legitimate terms for the country. Burma was the one that was adopted by the British when it became a British colony in the 19th century. And the main reason for the army to go for the other alternative, the Myanmar, was a way to distance themselves from the British colonial legacy. But it was also as a—in a way to sort of stamp their own legitimacy on their rule and to say, "We are in power, we’re in charge, and we do what we like, including changing the country’s name for, you know, international purposes."

Amy Goodman: We’re going to go to a break, then come back to this discussion about how Burma was established, and then end up here today with this historic election, what it means, and what about Aung San Suu Kyi’s charges of irregularities in these elections. We’re talking to Peter Popham. We’ll also find out why he called the biography of Aung San Suu Kyi The Lady and the Peacock. Stay with us. 

[break]

Amy Goodman: "The Return of Mother Suu," the National League for Democracy, NLD, sing along to a Johnny Cash-inspired anthem calling for the return of Mother Suu. And that is the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who reportedly has won for the first time a seat in the Burmese parliament. Our guest is Peter Popham, author of the new biography, The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi. As a foreign correspondent, commentator for The Independent of London, he has visited Burma a number of times undercover. He was deported, and he met with Suu Kyi two times.

I wanted to go back, how Burma was established and what that had to do with Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San.

Peter Popham: Well, it was—it became a British colony rather late, much later than India. It wasn’t fully brought into the British Empire until 1886. And they resisted furiously being incorporated into the empire. The British deposed the monarchy and sent the king and his queen into exile. And they were faced with popular revolts from very early on and throughout the early 20th century. There was this wave after wave of rebellion against British rule. And then, in the 1940s, the Japanese came over and, with the help of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, managed to drive the British out and establish their rule, which was initially seen by Aung San and his colleagues as a liberation. They discovered quite fast that it was nothing of the sort. And so, he swapped sides, went back onto the British side, and helped the British to drive the Japanese out. He played an extremely clever, agile game, and at the end of it, he was left as much the strongest person and the most popular political figure in the country, and he went to negotiate Burma’s independence.

Amy Goodman: Forced the independence of Burma from Britain.

Peter Popham: Well, yeah. I mean, this was 1947, ’48. Britain was essentially bankrupt after the war and was divesting of colonies as fast as possible. India went. Burma was bound to follow. So, I mean, there is a kind of—there is a kind of inevitability about it, but he was in the right place to take over.

Amy Goodman: How did Aung San die?

Peter Popham: He was machine-gunned to death, along with a number of his colleagues, by a jealous Burmese politician who arranged the assassination.

Amy Goodman: Aung San Suu Kyi, his daughter, one of three children, was two years old. Explain what Aung San meant to Aung San Suu Kyi, when she returned to Burma, not planning to be a political leader, but to take care of her mother in 1988.

Peter Popham: Well, I mean, for her, as for the rest of the country, he was kind of a symbol of Burma’s unfulfilled hopes, because he had—he had attempted to create a federal structure to bring the ethnic minorities, of which there are many, many in Burma, particularly around the borders—he aimed to stitch it together into a federal structure so all the minorities would have an important say in the way they ran their own affairs. After he was assassinated, this particular plan disappeared. And after a chaotic 10-year experience with democracy, democracy was also thrown overboard, and the military took over.

So when his daughter came back in 1988, the country had been ruled by the army for a generation—and very, very badly ruled. I mean, they had imposed a kind of primitive socialism on the economy, impoverishing what had been a very promising, new independent state, and completely eliminating all traces of democracy. So, although she didn’t say much in the first months, there’s no doubt that she was appalled and in despair, really, about the state her country had been reduced to. And so, for her, as for her people, Aung San, long dead, was the symbol of the way things should change.

Amy Goodman: And how the people of Burma embraced Aung San Suu Kyi? And then talk about the role of the monks.

Peter Popham: Yeah, well, I mean, they went—first they embraced her because she looked a lot like her father, because she was strikingly beautiful, and at the same time had this kind of fragility about her, which made people feel very kind of tender towards here. She wasn’t a great orator, and she really isn’t a great orator even now, but she showed great energy, and she threw herself into the task of leading the country. And quite rapidly, she became regarded as the legitimate successor of her father, and so the person who had the right to take over.

Amy Goodman: The significance of the international movements to free Burma, and especially going after the corporations that were profiting off of the military regime, if you could talk about that corporate history—companies, for example, like Unocal.

Peter Popham: Well, it was this terrible massacre we were discussing earlier, in which up to sort of 8,000 unarmed demonstrators—

Amy Goodman: In 1988?

Peter Popham:—were killed in 1988 on the streets of Rangoon, provoked the West, the U.S. and many European countries, to clamp sanctions onto Burma as a sign of disapproval and basically put relations with the country on ice. And that’s the way they’ve remained since. And the U.S., taking the lead, very often, has tightened sanctions when the—as has happened frequently, the regime has once again shown its very intolerant face. And these have been controversial, because it’s argued by some people that, as a result of the sanctions, Burma has not received enough international aid, and the economy remains completely stagnant, and so a lot of the business figures and their spokespeople have been urging sanctions to be removed for a number of years.

Amy Goodman: In the lead-up to this election, Aung San Suu Kyi took to the streets to call on the military to play a stabilizing role in Burma’s historic transition to democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi: [translated] I think there’s a need for the participation of the military for the stability of the transformation period of our country. If the military and the people do unite together for the sake of our country, we can reach the development of our country in a very short time.

Amy Goodman: That was Aung San Suu Kyi translated. Peter Popham, talk about the role that Aung San Suu Kyi sees for the military and who the current leader is. 

Peter Popham: Well, the military removed itself formally from power after 2008, with the bringing in of a civilian constitution, but they’re still there. They simply changed their clothes. And the president of the country, Thein Sein, is a former general, and so are most of his closest colleagues. The military also have 25 percent unelected seats in parliament guaranteed. And the defense council, which sits above parliament and has the right to dissolve it and to clamp martial law on the country at any time, so it’s—as a democracy, it’s in a state of development, but it’s not there yet. But Suu, partly because her father founded the army and partly because she is proceeding with extreme caution and prudence at the moment, makes it clear that she doesn’t want the army to go back to barracks and simply disappear. She has managed to forge a very strong and productive alliance with President Thein Sein, who is a genuine reforming figure. And so, she is now proceeding softly, softly in the direction of a fuller democracy. 

Amy Goodman: Over the weekend, Aung San Suu Kyi said her party will continue to campaign, despite what she called "irregular activities" during the election.

Aung San Suu Kyi: I’ve been saddened by the fact that the government and the elections commission have not been as firm as they might have been with regard to the irregular and, at times, illegal activities that have been taking place.

Amy Goodman: So, these elections were monitored by some 150 international observers. How free and fair were they? And where does the country go from here? What does it mean, as we wrap up, that Aung San Suu Kyi has won, for the first time, a seat in the parliament?

Peter Popham: I think, at the end, there were irregularities, but they were very minor irregularities compared to the grotesque stich-up which was the last election in November 2010. The polls seem to have been counted fairly, and the result is one that nobody could argue with.

Where we go next is there’s a general election in 2015. And what happens between now and then is really anybody’s guess. Suu will be in parliament, as will more than 40 of her colleagues. What they will do there remains to be seen. Whether—it’s been hinted that she could be offered a job in the cabinet. She could be offered the job of education or health minister, foreign minister. It’s even been suggested prime minister. She has kept her cards pretty—pretty hidden, so we don’t know how she feels about this. Some people say it would be a disaster for herself to align herself so openly with the regime at this point. On the other hand, she is nearly 67, and what she wants to do with her life is to change Burma. She’s never had any interest in being an icon for the sake of being an icon. She wants to make her country better.

Amy Goodman: Why did you call the book The Lady and the Peacock?

Peter Popham: The peacock is the symbol of the NLD. There’s a stylized peacock known in Burma as the "fighting peacock," which was originally a symbol of the royal family. During the revolt against the colonialists, it became a symbol of rebellion. And then, in 1988, when her party was founded, they adopted this very kind of powerful image as the party’s symbol.

Amy Goodman: And her name, Aung San Suu Kyi—Aung San, her father’s name.

Peter Popham: Yeah.

Amy Goodman: And when you talk about her, you refer to her as Suu.

Peter Popham: Well, when you meet her, she always says, "Call me Suu," because she knows her name is complicated and mysterious to foreigners. And she’s a very—she’s a very straightforward and informal person. So, I’ve preferred to stick simply to "Suu" during the book.

Amy Goodman: Do you think we’ll be seeing a President Aung San Suu Kyi soon?

Peter Popham: I don’t think it’s beyond the bounds of possibility.

Amy Goodman: I want to thank you very much, Peter Popham, for joining us, author of the new book, The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San Suu Kyi has just won a seat in the Burmese parliament, and we will continue to cover what happens in Burma.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to Bahrain. Will a leading human rights activist die on a hunger strike, as people in Bahrain and around the world rally around his imprisonment? Stay with us.

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