Twenty years after Aung San Suu Kyi’s internationally recognized 1990 election victory as the peoples’ choice to lead Burma into a new era of democracy and prosperity after four decades of totalitarianism and terror, Burma’s democratically elected leader remains locked away. She has now completed 12 years of house arrest, and is one of more than 2,100 fellow political prisoners — including 262 Buddhist monks and nuns — who were leaders of Burma’s 2007 “Saffron Revolution.”
These courageous pro-democracy activists are not alone in their incarceration. Burma is a network of prisons within a prison — an entire population held hostage by its own army, which is a military machine of 400,000 soldiers that acts more like a terrorist organization than an honorable institution.
The commander of this resource-rich nation is Senior General Than Shwe, a seemingly heartless, xenophobic tyrant whose singular preoccupation is power. Foreign Policy magazine recently ranked the “vainglorious general” third among the world’s worst dictators, edged out of the top spots only by Kim Jong-Il of North Korea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Although Than Shwe openly declares he is a devout follower of Buddhism, the basis of which are ahimsa (harmlessness), hiri and ottappa (moral shame and conscious regret), he seems devoid of both conscience and compassion.
Over the past 20 years, under his command, more than 3,000 villages in the border areas of the country have been ethnically cleansed. More than a million refugees have fled into neighboring Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh. Dozens of Buddhist monasteries have been laid to waste, their clergy beaten, gone missing or killed. Within the numerous prisons and forced labor camps unremitting torture is routine.
Such atrocities and many others have been routinely documented by governments, the United Nations and Amnesty International. Burma is a hellhole for human rights, and Than Shwe is decidedly one of the most ruthless dictators in the modern era.
It is no mystery why the general is afraid of “The Lady,” as Suu Kyi is often called. During Suu Kyi’s rare periods of freedom, when traveling the country, tens of thousands of admirers would often spontaneously gather to glimpse her — whereas Than Shwe is forced to travel in an armored vehicle surrounded by truckloads of soldiers.
Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, who negotiated Burma’s independence from Britain, founded the very army that Than Shwe has now hijacked.
The battle of dictatorship versus democracy in Burma is an epic one. It is a struggle between Suu Kyi’s love of freedom and Than Shwe’s fear of it. Within this archetypal context we have the international community’s escalating call to the International Criminal Court to charge this despotic general with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Meanwhile, Than Shwe scheduled a nationwide general election for Nov. 7 this year. Condemned by almost every world leader, Than Shwe’s sham is designed to legalize military rule in Burma under a 2008 constitution, which was written to create an eternal military dictatorship. In other words, a transparent attempt is being made to enshrine Than Shwe’s totalitarian control over Burma under the guise of a so-called civilian government formed by acting and retired generals and, of course, politically cleansed of opposition voices.
Essentially, this pseudo-government will be under the Orwellian control of the country’s military chief, a.k.a. “Big Brother” Than Shwe, and the people of Burma will become the permanent subjects of the military.
Many say that history has proved that tyrants eventually fall. But does Than Shwe face this fate? His wealth is enormous, thanks to his control over oil, gas and timber reserves. He has one of the largest standing armies in the world. He has big trading partners in his pocket, including Thailand, Singapore, China, South Korea, India and Russia.
In my study of Burma’s ancient culture — one steeped in the teachings of the Buddha — we find a recurring principle: cause and effect. In short, good causes lead to good effects and vice versa. The vast majority of people in Burma understand this principle as the operating system that determines both harmonious and negative relationships.
As a Buddhist, Than Shwe knows this principle but is clearly misguided in its application. Than Shwe operates within a temple of illusions, a form of megalomania known in Buddhist terminology as moha. As Goethe once said, “There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.” That’s moha. That’s Than Shwe.
The wise, it is said, know that true change can only come from within. Suu Kyi calls this principle “a revolution of the spirit.” She states that for self-responsibility to be genuine, “one must first learn to free their own mind from greed, anger and delusion before there can be any real and lasting change in society.”
Not long ago, Suu Kyi was able to leak a message to the world. She called on the people of her country to boycott Shwe’s sham election. She told them not to vote, and also encouraged them to explain to others the importance of not voting. Her words speak to a collective act of conscience. Even the military can participate in the boycott and not vote. The whole country can stay home on Nov. 7 and leave the ballot boxes empty. This is Suu Kyi’s non-violent activism. It is an example of using the power of conscience and choice, not violence or a gun.
Those of us on the outside have the opportunity to utilize our moral courage and stand in solidarity with three things. The first is with a boycott of the election within Burma. Second, we can support the international call for the immediate release of Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners, including the monks and nuns. Third, we can join her courageous call for dialogue and reconciliation with her oppressors.
In a world addicted to weapons and war, Suu Kyi’s message of achieving freedom through non-violent means rings louder today than ever. It is a message for the planet.
As a former Buddhist monk in Burma, and later a journalist and author, I had the good fortune of co-authoring a book of conversations with Suu Kyi in 1995 and 1996, soon after her release from her first six years of detention. The Voice of Hope (published in 11 languages) provides not only an unprecedented glimpse into the heart and mind of one of the world’s most courageous spiritual and political leaders — it offers the global community an impassioned call to action.
More recently, over 50 hours of recordings previously believed to be lost in Burma have been recovered. Combined with existing materials, this unprecedented archival collection of audio, video footage and still images (perhaps the largest collection in the world) of Suu Kyi and her key colleagues and mentors reveals these heroic freedom fighters reflecting on the politics of liberation, within Suu Kyi’s Rangoon home, the very heart of Burma’s revolution.
This timeless material, once restored (some was damaged from being buried in a forest for the past 15 years), will be used to create an enhanced interactive multimedia edition of The Voice of Hope, which will include key sections of audio, video, photographs and interviews that have never been heard or seen. They document Suu Kyi’s innermost philosophical, spiritual and political views, as well as those of her key colleagues, mentors and teachers, as they inform what many consider to be one of the most inspiring spiritually oriented, nonviolent political revolutions ever.
To assist in the production of this extraordinary project, the restoration of the recordings is crucial. Towards this goal, over the last year The Voice of Hope has been professionally recorded and the 13 hour-long unabridged audio book is available for instant download on a computer, iPod or MP3 player. Beyond the basic cost of the download, additional contributions will go towards the realization of this important project to preserve an interactive multimedia edition of this timeless classic, The Voice of Hope.
To learn more about this important project, view the video trailer for the vision, download the audio book itself and contribute to the restoration of this unprecedented collection of recordings by visiting our website at http://useyourliberty.org/trailer.