Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Living “Never Free From Fear”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi gave a public address at Yale today as part of a 17-day tour of the United States. Cathy Shufro, who covered the parliamentary election in Burma this spring as a fellow for the International Reporting Project, attended and sent the following report.

Fellows Spring 2012

By Cathy Shufro

September 27, 2012

Also published in the Yale Alumni Magazine

Burmese activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spoke calmly and deliberately, elegant in her silk sarong, red flowers in her black hair. But as she addressed an audience of nearly 700 in Sprague Hall and an overflow audience in the Yale Law School’s Levinson Auditorium, what she spoke of was the unremitting anxiety of life during five decades of military rule in Myanmar.

The military regime used two laws to create fear. Under one law, they could detain anyone, anytime, without trial, if that person was “a destructive element.” “What exactly does it mean?” asked Aung San Suu Kyi, who was speaking at Sprague as Yale’s fall 2012 Chubb Fellow. Whatever it meant, successive military regimes used the term to keep her under arrest for 15 of the years since 1989, mostly isolated in her house on the outskirts of Yangon (Rangoon).

Under another law, security officers would arrest and charge anyone who had acted in a way to “diminish the love of the people for the government.” That phrase provided scope for arresting almost anyone. The government even arrested people for distributing copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—which Myanmar had voted for and agreed to disseminate.

These laws, and others, were “used by those in authority for their own ends,” said Aung San Suu Kyi. “Our people were never going to be free from fear. They would always be afraid that even if they had done nothing wrong, action could be taken against them in accordance with the so-called laws of the land. “

Recent political reform in Myanmar—which Aung San Suu Kyi and other dissidents always refer to as Burma—might suggest that those days are over. Since 2010, when, as Aung San Suu Kyi put it, “all the generals put on civilian clothes and formed a civilian government,” authorities have released most political prisoners and halted overt press censorship. And unlike in 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party won the election but was barred from taking power, she and her fellow candidates took their seats in Parliament without incident after sweeping the April 2012 by-elections. She has since traveled to Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991.

But Aung San Suu Kyi said that for all the changes, the country has not really achieved a “breakthrough”—and it will not, until it institutes the rule of law. “Rule of law is the first step towards a genuine democratic society in Burma.”

Legal reform is under way, she said, but without enforcement and an independent judiciary, it won’t be sufficient to guarantee rule of law. Judges have become accustomed to serving as puppets of the men in power. “At the trials of political activists, the judges would quite openly wait for an envelope to be placed before them. And they would open it and that would be the sentence they would be expected to pass.”

Eliminating corruption will require a change of attitude, or how people view their roles in society. “Judges who have become corrupt cannot be changed simply by sending them to special courses at Yale,” she said, to laughter. “People who get used to that way of life cannot go back to the old clean ways of life easily.” Rule of law will play a role here too; corrupt judges and police officers must be subject to laws requiring honesty. “Rule of law will engender rule of law.”

Aung San Suu Kyi said that her party, the National League for Democracy, has been criticized for prioritizing rule of law over ending decades-old conflicts between the military and ethnic groups. She said peace agreements are useless if they can’t be guaranteed by enforceable laws. “Human rights and rule of law go hand in hand.” In addition, she said, Myanmar must amend its constitution, which reserves supreme power to the military.

During a question period, Yale president Richard Levin ‘74PhD asked: “What kept you going?“ Aung San Suu Kyi replied: “Inner resources. What you need are inner resources to keep you going under all circumstances.” She added, “I would say to young people, try to strengthen yourself internally. Don’t depend too much on external factors. You must be able to live with yourself.

“We have a saying in Burmese: ‘What is important to you is not just to be able to suffer the hardships of bad fortune, but you also have to know how to suffer the hardships of good fortune.’ Do you understand what that means? That means that you must not be shaken by external circumstances. You must not be tempted away from the path you set for yourself by the hope of gain, by the hopes of comfort. … You have to be able to detach yourself from the immediate circumstances and think of the greater picture.”