Stephen Tan Ban Cheng pays tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi and explains why this woman of courage richly deserves the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a very courageous woman. Coming as she has from a privileged background – her grandfather was a lawyer, her father was a leading general but was later assassinated in 1947 during talks for Burma’s Independence and her mother was an ambassador – she could have just walked away from all the nonsense that the Burmese Generals after General Ne Win were dishing out.
But she had the guts to say “No.”
Gen. Ne Win gradually rose to power as an army commander under Prime Minister U Nu, who ruled from Independence on 4 January 1958 till 28 October 1958, when he handed power to Gen. Ne Win as interim prime minister following his bare survival in a no-confidence vote. Upon U Nu’s vindication in the general election on 4 April 1960, Gen. Ne Win returned power to him.
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But barely two years later, on 2 March 1962, Gen. Ne Win staged a coup d’etat and styled himself as the chairman of the Revolutionary Council. He also made himself the Prime Minister until 1974, when he became the President and appointed Brigadier-General Sein Win as Prime Minister. On 9 November 1981, he quit the presidency and was replaced by Gen. San Yu.
Twenty-six years later, on 23 July 1988, Gen. Ne Win who was by then 78-years-old, resigned as the leader of Burma’s only political party, a position he had retained after founding the party 14 years earlier in 1974 to replace his Revolutionary Council.
Ne Win had just before that denied having anything to do with dynamiting of the Students Union building after students demonstrated following his tinkering with the Burmese currency, the kyat, after more than 25 years of isolating Burma from the international trading grid.
The shadow Gen. Ne Win cast was so long that even two months after quitting the party presidency, he could order the demonetisation of the kyat in some larger denominations, thereby crippling the Burmese economy beyond redemption and causing general hardship to the populace.
Gen. Ne Win died almost in disgrace on 5 December 2002.
Speculation has always been rife since 1947 that the then 37-year-old Ne Win, the most free-wheeling student among the celebrated Thirty Comrades who did their military training in Japan in 1940-41 during World War II, could have been the hand behind 32-year-old Major-General Aung San’s assassination on 19 July 1947.
Aung San Suu Kyi was only two years and one month old when her illustrious father was assassinated, having been born on 19 June 1945, the third child and only daughter of the Major-General, who founded the modern Burmese Army.
Suu Kyi grew up under the care of her diplomat mother and was sent to Oxford University, where she graduated with a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1969 after obtaining an earlier BA in politics from an Indian college in 1964. In 1972, she married Dr Michael Aris, a Tibetan culture scholar, and they have two sons, born in 1972 and 1977.
Being a mother did not deter her from her academic pursuits. Suu Kyi earned her PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1985 and was elected as an Honorary Fellow in 1990, after the Burmese Generals had already put her under house arrest on 20 July 1989, for her campaign to democratise Burma through the National League for Democracy she founded on 27 September 1988.
In 1998, at the age of 43, Suu Kyi returned to care for her ailing mother. Before her mother’s demise in 1989, she found herself saying “No” to the Burmese generals on 8 August1988, the day when Burmese held a mass demonstration for democracy and the very day when we in Malaysia received confirmation that our Lord President, Tun Salleh Abas, had been unceremoniously thrown off the Bench after being suspended for a few months.
That categorical “No” cost Suu Kyi 15 years of house arrest over the next 21 years. And the rest is history. This is one woman who holds a lot more promise than the late Corazon Aquino who assumed the Filipino presidency on the wave of People Power, which ousted the utterly corrupt and decadent Ferdinand Marcos regime in 1983.
That Oxford University had stood by her and fought for her during her darkest days can only be understood by those who have had a true overseas education. By “true,” I mean imbibing, understanding and appreciating the time-tested values of a liberal education system.
It is both a tribute to Oxford as a world-class university, to the leading luminaries of Oxford over the years and to Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Prize in 1991, the first Nobel laureate from Burma and the first as a prisoner, that the university unashamedly claimed her as its very own during her days of darkness.
And this, alas, only those with a truly overseas education can only understand, just as only they could understand why the university hailed her as a “heroine of humanity” in a speech at the university to commemorate her visit to the United Kingdom this year.
We in Malaysia may have our universities, but how many of our local universities have stood up to claim their very own when one of their alumni had been detained under the now repealed but nevertheless draconian Internal Security Act, an Act that allowed detention without trial for so many years?
Therein lies the indictment for our university system which never provided, nor even encouraged the dire need for our undergrads to be free from fear, to be free to think and to be free to dream.
Suu Kyi, who was widowed when Dr Aris succumbed to prostate cancer on 27 March 1999, was born a patrician, led the life of a patrician but when the time came, she stood steadfastly and successfully with the plebeians, as her party’s sterling success at the two Burmese elections in 1990 and 2010 showed.
That, in itself, marks her out as someone succinctly special, someone who, in our Malaysian language, did not “lupakan kulitnya macam kacang” or in the English language “a nut who never forgot its skin.”
Indeed, in giving her the award, the Nobel Committee mentioned:
“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Burma) for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.
“… Suu Kyi’s struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression …
“In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means.” – Oslo, 14 October 1991
Now, can we Malaysians see someone of her calibre in any of our local university graduates, someone who trains her lofty mind to override the low-minded pursuits of narrow and selfish interests? As the Good Book tells us, you must have eyes that can see and ears that can hear. Otherwise, you have just wasted your valuable time reading this.
Stephen Tan Ban Cheng or Anak Tanjong Tokong Lama is a veteran journalist-turned lawyer based in Penang.