Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been received with warmth and enthusiasm on her 17-day visit to the United States, which began on September 17. Her years of perseverance and dedication to the cause of democracy have deservingly earned such recognition.
The thought of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi receiving a standing ovation from members of the US Congress and holding a meeting with a US president at the White House seemed unlikely until just a few months ago.
As Myanmar progresses with its democratic reforms, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will have to manage the high expectations of her. In the history of the country’s democracy movement, two statements, one from the National League for Democracy and another from her father, continue to linger in the minds of the people of Myanmar, especially ethnic minorities.
The statement, “If Burma receives one kyat, you will also get one kyat,” was made in the year before the country’s independence in January 1948. Bogyoke Aung San, founder of the Burmese Independence Army and father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, said these historic words in an attempt to convince other nationalities to join what would become the Union of Burma.
The objective of the statement was toguarantee equal rights for all nationalities in the newly independent Burma, regardless of their religious and ethnic backgrounds.
That assurance convinced the Chin, the Kachin, and the Shan leaders to sign the Panglong Agreement on February 12, 1947 and join the interim government led by General Aung San. The day is still observed each year as the country’s Union Day.
However,60 years after independence, the grievances of ethnic minorities remain mostly unresolved. In the past 18 months ceasefires have been reached with most of the armed ethnic groups but tension remains high in some areas, particularly in the Kachin state. The core issue of autonomy is also uncertain.
In a commencement address delivered on her behalf to American University in Washington in 1997, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said: “Please use your liberty to promote ours.” The objective was to garner the support of the international community.
During her recent tour to the US, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was asked on minority issues, particularly in Kachin and Rakhine states. In similar responses she emphasised the need for rule of law but refrained from condemning the Myanmar military.
The majority-minority issue has plagued Burma’s post-independence era and ethnic minorities have accused the majority group of adopting a Burmanisation policy and exhibiting Burman chauvinism.
As someone who receives almost unflinching support from ethnic minorities, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi needs to speak up on the problems minorities face. The issue cannot wait until she becomes head of the national government or when her NLD has a majority in the national parliament.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s apparent reticence could encourage the country’s ethnic minorities to question her leadership and credibility. As she once famously implored others, she must use her freedom to promote the freedom of others and stress the need for equality of rights for all ethnic nationalities, as her late father envisaged.
The US government’s recent decision to lift more economic sanctions should give a new impetus to both the U Thein Sein government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led opposition to address ethnic conflict and human rights violations in minority territories.
A democracy that does not resolve minority problems will not bring durable peace and stability to Myanmar. Building mutual trust is essential to strengthen the relationship between the majority Burman and the minority groups.
As the daughter of General Aung San and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and because of her connections with the Western world and her relentless commitment to the pursuit of democracy and human rights, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has a level of respect that no contemporary politician in Myanmar enjoys. She must use this unique position to win the hearts and minds of ethnic minorities in order to build a unified and vibrant multi-ethnic society.
(Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the United States-based Kuki International Forum. His research interests include political transition, democratisation, human rights, ethnic conflict and identity politics and he has written numerous peer-reviewed and non-academic articles on the politics of Myanmar and Asia.)