“Only a government that tolerates opinions and attitudes different from its own will be able to create an environment where people of diverse traditions and aspirations can breathe freely in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust.” (16:65)
Having traveled in Myanmar for three weeks and met Burnese people to whose kindness I am indebted, I come to understand what Aung San Suu Kyi means by embracing the beautiful and the ugly. There’s so much beauty in the land and its people but also ugliness from within. Letter from Burma is a collection of essays published in a weekly column of a paper over the course of a year from November 1995. By then she has been under house arrest for six years.
Her writings give a glimpse of life in Burma and the struggles for democracy in the wake of the ignored election results of 1990. It was held after public demonstrations that erupted all over the country in 1988, protesting the authoritarian rule of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (backed by the military). While NLD (National League for Democracy), of which Aung San Suu Kyi is a founding member, has the support of the vast majority of people, and in spite of its landslide victory in the election, there was no transfer to a democratic government as the people expected but to a series of intensive measures aimed at debilitating the NLD.
The series of letters touches on the Burnese customs, traditions, and daily life. There are excursions to Buddhist temples in the countryside via roads full of dips and potholes. The early morning, pre-dawn preparation of food feeding the monks and poor people. There’s the hospitality of the people whose social life is complicated by the government’s mandatory guest list. All overnight visitors on each household must be reported. This is still true today, as foreigners are allowed only in guesthouses and hotels. Aung San Suu Kyi’s description of the Burnese people especially resonates with me. They are mostly poor but very cheerful givers. They are willing to sacrifice what little they have if they are convinced that the contributions are for good cause. Perhaps because of the repression and injustices to which they are subjected, they have a remarkable capacity for deriving pleasure from the most ordinary circumstances.
To view opposition as dangerous is to misunderstand the basic concepts of democracy. To oppress the opposition is to assault the very foundation of democracy. (41:165)
Aung San Suu Kyi believes the life of the Burmese will never improve under a one-party government that lays down law without reference to public sentiment. A government that does not tolerate opposing opinions is an Orwellian state where people feel insecure as long as freedom of speech and freedom of political action are not protected by law. The talk of life qualify always weaves back to politics. The letters turn to the obstacles of the NLD, as military authorities have taken all possible steps, with underhanded and dubious measures, to prevent NLD from carrying out the legitimate work of a national political party.
This book was written during a turbulent times and carries a historical importance. It chronicles a country on the threshold to freedom and democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi advocates fit better health care and education, and the need for ethical foreign investment in Myannar’s future. She reveals a cute insight into the impact of political decisions on ordinary people’s lives. Irradiated from the pages and her words are her love for the country and its people.
209 pp. Penguin Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
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