She’s free, and the world suddenly seems a slightly better place.
Have you, like me been glued to the news channels over the weekend, switching from radio to tv to get a glimpse of her or even hear her voice?
Aung San Suu Kyi revered heroine of the democracy movement in Burma was released this week after the last seven years of her nearly 15 year house arrest. Her face has a few more lines, but otherwise she seems unchanged from the iconic photos we’ve seen for years: the crisply ironed blouses, the fresh flowers in her hair, the kind eyes smilinging benevolently at the people who’ve come to show their love - all are still there.
It’s immediately evident that she is more loved than ever. And her behaviour shows why. As the world waited with bated breath to see how she would react to a new Burma, to see whether she would compromise with the generals or take a hard line towards them, she took the much more elegant course by asking her people what they wanted her to do.
Addressing the massive crowd who had gathered to see her, she asked them what they wanted, and passed a microphone from one person to another. Mostly the people wanted to simply express their most basic emotions: “We love you very much” said one middle aged man. One woman weeping, cried into the microphone, “I love you more than I love myself”.
There is no one in the world, except possibly Nelson Mandela who is so universally esteemed and so much a living icon in their own country.
It was hard not to blub at hearing her voice on the radio, and hearing the jubilation of the thousands of people who’d turned out to welcome her to freedom, but there is a danger of getting over jubilant. For one thing, The Lady is free, it’s true. But we don’t know for how long, and she herself is prepared for the fact that she may be thrown back in detention at any moment on the whim of the capricious generals who hold her country in their powerful jaws.
For another, the very name Burma - yes and I insist on this blog at least, on sticking to Burma, rather than Myanmar, the name thought up by the detested generals - conjurs up some pretty depressing statistics.
The world’s most famous political prisoner may be free, but there are still more than 2000 other political prisoners languishing in distant corners of of the country, far from their families and out of contact with the rest of the world. The average Burmese earns less than $100 a month, and the country that once boasted the best education system in Asia now spends less than 0.3% of its GDP on its schools and universities. The dollars pour in from Burma’s plentiful resources - oil, timber, precious stones but they’re pouring mainly into the pockets of the generals and their cronies. 50% of the GDP goes to the military, though Burma has no enemies outside its borders - that means that the country’s expensive state of the art weaponry is being used mainly against its own citizens. Meanwhile the entire health budget is less than 5% of its GDP. There are millions of people with HIV and AIDS in the country, but the safe sex programmes cannot be advertised and the government is providing anti retro virals to just a few thousand people, leaving the others to the mercy of NGO’s.
There are also nearly 450,000 ethnic people internally displaced over the borders of their homeland and as things stand, they have no clear view of getting home any time soon. Ethnic militia groups on the border grow stronger every year with illicit money from drugs, weapons, mining, smuggling and logging. The money fuels the expansion of the local armies and is hardly condusive to ideas towards co-operation which may mean a cut in revenues.
It remains to be seen whether Aung Saan Suu Kyi can use her vast moral credit and personal charisma to bring together the ethic groups who have become used to conflict as a way of life. Uniting them and attempting conciliation with the ethnic majority Burmans is going to be as great a challenge as getting the generals to loosen the grip of their jaws on the long suffering people of Burma.