The Absence of Principles Marks a Half-Century of Burma’s Opposition

The Absence of Principles Marks a Half-Century of Burma’s Opposition

By Maung Zarni

For the last three decades, I have been immersed in Burma’s pro-democratic activism, first as a loyal foot-soldier and grassroots activist for Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, and subsequently a highly “controversial” critic of her opposition, its policies and strategies. 

To my deep dismay, the absence of any progressive ideals, personal integrity or commitment to any set of ethical and moral principles, beyond well-crafted rhetoric, on the part of those Burmese who have, for better or worse, occupied commanding heights of the opposition strikes me as a recurring phenomenon.  

In the spring of 2004, I publicly broke my ties with Aung San Suu Kyi, then under her last stint of house arrest for what I concluded were irredeemably ethical, strategic and spiritual failures. Knowing full-well that I was going against the currents, I proceeded to publicly criticize her unrelenting support for what I call “western sanctions orthodoxy” – at all costs to all segments of Myanmar society, including laid-off thousands of garment industry workers, mainly young women, who lost their livelihoods as the result of tightening western sanctions, without any apparent concrete strategic gains for our anti-military mission.

In those days, any public criticism directed at Aung San Suu Kyi, and expression of political and personal disloyalty was not just “controversial”, but a political equivalent of sacrilegious act typically followed by societal ostracism.  As a matter of fact, I did more than criticize the NLD leader but I advocated opening dialogue with her captors, Burma’s generals.  I gave up my political asylum in the USA, returned home as a “guest of the state”, as my military hosts flatteringly told me, resumed my citizenship and advocated for working with the already widely despised Burmese generals, for reconciliation and finding our own homegrown solutions to problems – in the face of no real support from the democratic West.

For the next decade or so, Mother Suu – Aunty, as I once called her with deep affection – continued to remain on her pedestal, both at home and worldwide.  I continued to be in the political wilderness of the opposition. Mother Suu’s framed pictures adorned walls, from East to West, from that of the congregation hall of the ashram (or spiritual compound) of the renowned engaged Buddhist scholar and activist Sulak Sivaraksa in Bangkok and that of the world-famous anarchist intellectual and linguist Noam Chomsky’s office at MIT. Professor Chomsky once told me, “I used to keep her picture in my office.” Senior German diplomats did the same at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. It also featured prominently in the homes of the millions of her adoring supporters in Burma.  Reflecting the popular Burmese perception of the NLD leader, numerous Western experts were engaged in a hagiographic depiction of Aung San Suu Kyi, in the mould of a female would-be-Buddha. 

In her book review “The Spirit of Aung San Suu Kyi”, Birtukan Midekssa, a former judge and leader of the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice Party in her native Ethiopia, wrote, “Daw Suu’s admirers call her not a dissident but a boddhisattva (italic added), which in Buddhist terms means one who suffers so that others might experience life to the fullest.”

She was re-quoting the American expert on Myanmar Ingrid Jordt of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee who observed, “[Aung San Suu Kyi] inspires the populace to recall or imagine a different kind of social contract between ruler and the ruled based on the highest human aspirations of compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity: the four sublime states of mind” (380). ​ Midekssa wrote, “Daw Suu, in short, is a living testament to the politics of conscience.”

Of course, the worldwide admiration of Aung San Suu Kyi ended with the moral condemnation of her genocide denial at the International Court of Justice (The Gambia vs. Myanmar genocide case) in the Hague on December 2019. I realize that the moral and spiritual emptiness of the Burmese opposition movements – note the plural –  cannot be explained by the deeds, thoughts and sentiments of one single leader, however influential.   

But the Burmese public by and large remain heavily and unhealthily leader-dependent, at best, and feudalistic at worst as evidenced in the still very relevant Burmese sayings, “if the leading cow fails to walk straight then the herd (following the lead cow) cannot be expected to travel on a straight line” and “if the roof is leaky, no chance of stemming the rain water falling down onto the house floor”.

These metaphoric Burmese problem of “the non-straight walking cow” “leaky roof” is not exclusive to the Oxford-educated Aung San Suu Kyi, who, as a Nobel Peace laureate and Burmese opposition leader, delivered Reith Lectures for BBC in 2011, during which she wove various religio-moral discourses drawn from Gandhian philosophy, Buddhism, Christianity, and normative liberal human rights.

The late Prime Minister U Nu, who was the senior most comrade of Aung San Suu Kyi’s slain father, led the failed armed resistance, and had shown to have remarkably similar leadership failings, morally, politically and intellectually. In the summer of 2018, I was a guest of retired Burmese academic and activist Professor Kyaw Win in his home in the Rocky Mountains outside Boulder, Colorado. There I conducted a long series of interviews on his decades-long anti-Burmese junta activism in the United States, including serving as “the ambassador” or “representative” of the parallel government of U Nu, ousted, imprisoned and exiled by General Ne Win (1962-88).  He gifted me U Nu’s type-written, genuine copy of an internal Burmese language letter – dated 2 March 1973, 11-pages in total – addressed to his (ex-PM Nu’s) revolutionary colleagues.   

Text, letter

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Page 1 of the letter by the ex-Prime Minister U Nu to his deputies in the War Council of the People’s Patriotic Party, the armed anti-military dictatorship resistance movement of the 1970’s

In the letter, after describing (financial) corruption of some of the top leaders in his resistance movement, the demands for federalist right of secession (from the Union of Burma) by the ethnic minority leaders of the allied resistance organizations (such as the Karen National Union and the New Mon State Party) U Nu stated in no uncertain terms that he was “completely opposed to the right of secession”, a cornerstone in the political foundation of the Union of Burma, enshrined in the Pang-Long Treaty –  or the political blueprint of the post-colonial independent Burma –  of 1947.  

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Page 11 and concluding page

Besides, on the very same subject, U Nu showed no qualm about spelling out his pre-emptive refusal to accept any outcome of the deliberations within the anti-junta coalition of which his People’s Patriotic Party was a key member.  In his words (my translation verbatim), “because I anticipate that I did not have enough votes on my (anti-secession) side, I had prepared my letter of resignation from my position as the head of the People’s Patriotic Party.” He further stated, “since I assumed the Prime Ministership (of the newly independent Burma in 1948), I had adopted the policy of “absolutely-No-to-Secession” 

Nu and Aung San Suu Kyi, the two anti-junta leaders, iconic both at home and abroad, belonged to two different generations of politicians and dissidents. They both typically – and consciously – exploited the flowery discourses of democracy, federalism and Buddhism – meditation, compassion, freedom from greed, illusions, fear, hatred, attachment, etc. And yet shockingly, neither appeared committed to Buddhist principles of compassion and conscience or the commitment to secular liberal principles of democratic decision-making or federalism as a group power-sharing arrangement.

It was no secret that Aung San Suu Kyi ran her populist National League for Democracy, rather autocratically. She blocked or frustrated any attempts within the party to establish intra-party democratic-decision-making even in the party’s formative years. Such attempts were proposed, to no avail, by some of the capable progressive intellectuals such as the highly respected journalist the late U Win Tin and colleagues.   

The absence of progressive (i.e., non-ethno-nationalistic) and pro-democratic principles has over the last 50-years permeated anti-military resistance groups.  Importantly, the majoritarian Bama or Burmese organizations and movements – from the late U Nu’s People’s Patriotic Party and its war council dominated by the peers of the slain Burmese independence hero Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, or Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, and its post-2021 coup offshoot organizations such as Committee Representing People’s Parliament (CRPH) and National Unity Government – have been plagued by what many nationality activists call “Burmese or Bama superiority complex” and its sense of political entitlement, or “majoritarian nationalist chauvinism”.    

As shocking as it may sound, both Aung San Suu Kyi and the late U Nu more or less shared the historical narrative of their common captors, the military dictatorships, from Ne Win to the current dictator Min Aung Hlaing. The anti-military Burmese organizations, movements and leaderships, including Nu and Aung San Suu Kyi and their loyal supporters, will vehemently deny that their leaders were cut from the same self-defeating Bama Buddhist nationalism which rejects the genuinely federalist rights – of which the right to self-determination is an inseparable component – while clinging on to the majoritarian or populist sense of political entitlement to lead – nah, rule autocratically – the Fourth Burmese Republic.   

It bears pointing out the unsavoury fact that Aung San Suu Kyi-loyalists occupy the dominant positions within the National Unity Government.  Only a few years ago, every one of these Bama activist and politician, including the “Minister for Human Rights” in the NUG, publicly stood with “Mother Suu” when she was defending the military against the allegations of genocide at the UN’s highest court in the Hague.  

While their well-documented genocidal complicity may have dampened the international enthusiasm for the overall Burmese democratic movement it is their Bama-centric statist nationalism, a sad trademark of various waves of anti-military dictatorships, over the last 50 years, which has now become the dead weight around their legs as they attempt to climb the uphill of democratic revolution against the genocidal regime openly protected and armed by India, China, and Russia.  

In her acceptance speech for the 1990 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (dated 1 January 1990), entitled Freedom from Fear, Aung San Suu Kyi stressed, “the quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation’s development. A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success.”

Indeed. 

Maung Zarni is the co-author of Essays on Myanmar’s Genocide of Rohingyas (2012-18). He is a UK-based Burmese exile with over 30-years of first-hand involvement and scholarship in Burma affairs. 

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