"It's traditional to release caged birds or fish on Burmese New Year's Day as an act of merit. In April 1989, the last Burmese New Year I celebrated before my house arrest, we released some doves, launching them into the emptiness above Inya Lake on which my house stands. The poor creatures had become used to captivity and fluttered about in a dazed way before they gained enough confidence to take off ... Many released birds are caught again and again and sold and resold to those who wish to gain the merit of freeing caged birds. I could not help wondering how much value there could be to a gesture of liberation that does not truly guarantee freedom." - Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi
This week, I finished reading Aung San Suu Kyi's Letters from Burma, a collection of 52 essays she originally wrote in the mid-1990s for a Japanese newspaper, as Suu Kyi herself wrapped up her tour of the United States. The visit was a landmark trip for the 67-year-old leader of the Burmese National League for Democracy (NLD), who spent 15 years under house arrest by order of the military regime in power in Burma. She was released in 2010 and since then, Suu Kyi, the country and the democratic movement she represents have witnessed varying degrees of reformation and liberation.
Since the country's independence from British colonial rule in 1948, Burma (also known as Myanmar) has experienced traumatic growing pains as a sovereign state. From 1962 to 2011, the government was run by the military regime, known under different titles such as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Myanmar held free elections in 1990, in which the regime's opposition, the NLD, won 80% of the seats. The military refused to yield power. In 2010, the democratic opposition was allowed to take part in open elections, but were only able to contest a small portion of total seats in parliament.
As the daughter of Burma's national hero, Aung San, Suu Kyi has been public enemy number one for the national military, and she's come to embody the peaceful struggle for democracy, a constant undercurrent in Burma. The letters she wrote during her house arrest are thick with metaphors (like the caged birds caught and released, only to be captured again) which mirrored experiences she had with democracy and justice. To be sure, she delved into issues of politics and history, but she also turned a keen eye toward the nation's diverse cultural heritage and religious influences, and examined how those things have impacted national identity.
Suu Kyi's visit to the United States has been full of similarly symbolic meetings, awards ceremonies and speeches. She received a standing ovation from the U.S. Congress at the Capitol Rotunda and addressed distinguished guests at the Asia Society in D.C. alongside Hillary Clinton. She was awarded the Asia Society Global Vision Award, and, in an earlier trip to D.C. in June, officially received the Nobel Peace Prize she won back in 1991.
After a trip full of so many hopeful moments, it's hard not to wonder if this is just a temporary freedom for Suu Kyi, a so-called act of merit by the military regime that has long repressed her and the principles she represents. Many journalists, thought leaders and Burma experts have called for her to take a stronger stance on issues like economic reform, minority conflict and social justice. But perhaps Suu Kyi walks a fine line on many of these points because she knows that the freedom she has been given to speak, travel and advocate for change has been largely dependent on the gestures of the ruling majority. While she retains a seat in the national parliament, her NLD party remains a minority opposition to the ruling regime.
Burmese President U Thein Sein was quoted last week as saying, "The main reason [for change in the regime] was the wishes of the people. Since the beginning, we knew the people wanted a democratic system, but we didn't want to introduce changes abruptly. It would be quite dangerous to society. The changes in our country were gradual. But we did it because people wanted it. It was not because of Arab Spring or anything else."
It's true change has not come suddenly or with the same degree of violence seen with the Arab Spring. But we cannot forget the so-called Saffron Revolution of 2007, which saw monks protesting in the streets and paying respects at Suu Kyi's gate. While relative peace, reformation and change seem to be dominating the national climate today, it's important to remember the complex cultural legacy Suu Kyi recounts in her Letters to Burma and the long history of repression the country has experienced.
The quiet struggle for authentic social and political justice in Burma is not only Suu Kyi's cross to bear. While she remains the face of the democratic movement, she has accepted the reality that her party must work with and not against the ruling faction. Her approach has been and will always be one of peace, a tribute to not only her strong Buddhist heritage but also her keen political intellect and many years of insights into the duplicitous national system.
As her trip to the U.S. has demonstrated, Suu Kyi has an influential cohort of international supporters. It will require the backing of these political leaders, the trust of the Burmese population, and the guidance of Suu Kyi and the NLD to continue to drive meaningful change from within and guarantee genuine freedom for the country.
This article was originally printed on The Culture Crossing.