Wednesday 21 August 2019

Fergal Keane: The gate is open now, she said, but the work has just begun in Burma

In the wake of election victory, Aung San Suu Kyi has made a promise to protect the weak from the powerful, which is the truest measure of any democracy

Aung San Suu Kyi and Fergal Keane
Aung San Suu Kyi and Fergal Keane

Fergal Keane

There was something in the way she stepped out of the house, an electricity that came before her such as I have not encountered in any political leader before. Not even Mandela, whom I interviewed several times, projected such an aura of indomitability. By then she knew of course what I only suspected: her party had not simply won a landslide, it had destroyed the military-backed ruling party.

I have known Aung San Suu Kyi for 20 years. When she was first released from house arrest in 1995 I was the first journalist to interview her. The interview was granted because - as she later explained - the BBC World Service had broadcast my reports of the South African transition through the walls of her imprisonment. "I felt as if I already knew you," she told me back then. Over the years - in the intermittent periods of freedom between house arrests - we have met and spoken, sometimes on the record and sometimes privately.

The fact that she regards me as a friend has never stopped me from asking tough questions or reporting uncomfortable facts. She has never once resented me for doing my job.

Rangoon in the last few days has had a surreal feel. The election coincided with the end of the rainy season. A few great showers trembled our windows but were followed by hours of freshness. There was vigour in the air.

On the morning of the vote we set out before dawn. The streets were empty save for the eternal feral hounds of the Asian dark. Huddled in a malevolent group opposite the hotel they howled as we walked to the car. Our driver had mischievously hurled a stone into their midst. I had a flashback. Eight years before I had set out at the same time but with my heart pounding. The plan was to meet with Buddhist monks in hiding from the military. It was just before the end of curfew. I was on a blacklist and would have been arrested had the soldiers on the roadblocks realised who I was. I was masquerading as a tourist. Luckily my passport is as Gaeilge and they knew only to look for the English form of my name.

Burma was convulsed by demonstrations led by the monks, the so-called 'Saffron Revolution.' Thousands of people were being arrested and disappearing into military detention. Yet the spirit of peaceful rebellion had not been crushed. In a safe house close to the city's Catholic cathedral I met some of the clergy. They were defiant. "I will do the same again. And again," one told me. Later I wrote that Burma had reached a turning point. Whatever the generals did the country could not turn backwards towards the morbid calm of isolation. Social media had conveyed the brutality of the crackdown to the wider world. The choice was between a peaceful transition and escalating civil war.

I could not have foreseen these elections, the calm and dignity of voters, the sheer scale of the pro-democracy victory, the apparent willingness of the military to accept that victory. I had to pinch myself when I picked up the state-controlled 'New Light of Myanmar' and read its editorial, 'The True Value of Defeat.' Among other things it urged its military owners not to "adopt the wrong approach to defeat (as it will) make people lifelong losers…consumed with self-pity."

The big winner in these elections was the principle of non-violence. The Burmese military were as brutal as any in cracking down on their opponents. Mass murder, rape, slavery, torture and detention without trial - all in a day's work for the generals. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi steadfastly refused to countenance armed struggle. In an age where governments and guerrilla groups resort to killing as their first option, Burma has much to teach us all.

When I met Aung San Suu Kyi last week, she seemed fairly certain the army would not stage a coup, although on the record she repeated her dictum: "Hoping for the best but prepared for the worst." What had changed, I wondered? "The times have changed, the people have changed…They are much more politicised now," she replied.

I would also say that she has changed in some important ways. The woman I first met in 1995 was still an icon who hovered above the political fray. In those days her political dialogue was limited to the higher statements of the human rights canon. Becoming a politician has meant balancing compromise and confrontation, playing a long game and forming alliances. That is the big difference between Aung San Suu Kyi and fellow Nobel laureates like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Neither has a political constituency to worry about. They are both enmeshed in politics yet able to stand above it. She has had to take hold of a large and often unwieldy movement and mould it into an electoral force.

Yet she relishes the political fight. "I will be above the president…I will make all the decisions," she said. I put it to her that this admission was startlingly frank. It might unsettle the generals. "It might be startlingly frank but it is better to be straight with people," was her response.

Suu Kyi knew that I had reported on the Rwandan genocide and that sectarian/ethnic slaughter was the major preoccupation of my reporting life. During the election campaign I had been to the north-west and reported on the targeting of the Rohingya Muslims, something she has been fiercely criticised for failing to condemn. In the election neither her party nor the ruling USDP put forward a single Muslim candidate - a clear sign of caving in to the pressure from Buddhist extremists.

Now, in the wake of the election victory, what would she do? Would she commit to protecting those targeted by the politics of hatred - not only the Rohingya but also the country's wider Muslim population? The response was heartening and significant. This is the transcript of what she said to me:

"We should all be concerned about hate, the proliferation of hate, not just hate speech because hate leads to violence and you know what violence leads to. You know better than I do because you have been to many parts of the world where violence has destroyed societies. So certainly this is something we all have to work at together and I do believe that in this matter too our people are very open to reason provided you explain to them why we should not go the way of hatred. After all if we are a predominantly Buddhist country we should go the way of loving kindness."

Q: So those who have been ostracised, marginalised, who are stuck in ethnic will protect them?

"I will protect everybody in this country because that would be the duty of the government. Any decent government must protect everybody in this country in accordance with the law."

Why does this promise matter so much? Because the truest measure of a democracy is how it protects the weak from abuse by the powerful, because challenging hatred from within one's own ethnic group or faith is the litmus test of any leader's claim to represent the entire nation.

The private exuberance I noted in her last week has not translated into public triumphalism.

She told her supporters to go home and go back to work.

There would be no parties and no taunting the losers. The gate is open now, she said, but the work has just begun.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

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