Burma's Martyr to Freedom

News Abroad

Mr. Luker, an Atlanta historian, is the author of The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912 and co-editor of the first two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King. He is a writer for the History News Service. Click here for his blog on HNN.

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The detention of a private citizen in a Third World country would not ordinarily get much attention elsewhere. But when Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned two weeks ago, world attention turned to the embattled hope for democracy in the impoverished southeast Asian country.

Americans may remember Burma because of the controversy over its name. In 1989, Burma's military rulers appealed to nationalist sentiment by adopting the name "Myanmar" for their nation. It's a name adapted from local usage, but it hasn't won world recognition because the regime is an international outlaw in flagrant violation of human rights.

There was a time, in 1948, when Americans knew Burma as a newly independent British colony in southeast Asia, fully hopeful of joining the world community of free and independent nations. Burma is little known to us now because it fell under military rule shortly after independence and became isolated.

In 1990, Burma's 40 million people could hope that the long delayed promise of freedom was theirs. In the nation's first free elections in decades, they voted overwhelmingly for the National League for Democracy, whose leader few Americans had heard of: Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma's military rulers reneged on the promise of free elections, however, and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. In 1991, her long struggle to bring freedom and democracy to Burma won the Nobel Prize. In the intervening years, Burma's hope for freedom has been embodied in that brave woman. Thinking that more than a decade of house arrest had ended Suu Kyi's public appeal, the regime released her from detention in 2002.

Suu Kyi has long been an advocate of reconciliation. She and her followers have been willing partners in reconciliation discussions mediated by the United Nations special envoy, Razali Ismail. Yet Burma's current military dictator, Than Shwe, has withdrawn from those discussions and steadily mounted state pressure on supporters of the National League for Democracy.

On May 30, supporters of Myanmar's military regime attacked the convoy of Suu Kyi as she was on her way to rally her followers. They killed some of her supporters and imprisoned her and other followers, who joined in confinement about 1,400 other political prisoners held by the government. Last week, Myanmar's military regime reluctantly allowed the U.N. envoy access to her.

Military dictators have now governed Burma for a half century. The regime has isolated Burma in the world of nations, has controlled its industries and has drained its economy. Once the wealthiest nation in southeast Asia, Burma's $1,200 per capita annual income is now a fifth of that of neighboring Thailand, below that even of neighboring Bangladesh. Slavery is a common form of labor in Burma, so many western corporations will not accept goods made there for sale. Burma feeds only our illicit addiction to its opium.

The United Nations and the United States have limited influence with the government in Burma. U.N. and U. S. authorities have called for Suu Kyi's release to no avail. As its closest trading partners, Japan, Singapore and Thailand have greater influence with Burma's government, but they are reluctant to intervene in Burma's internal affairs. Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to meet this month with leaders in southeast Asia and press the case for Suu Kyi's release and progress toward democracy in Burma.

There is more that we can do to "keep hope alive" in southeast Asia. Republican Sens. William Frist, Richard Lugar and Mitch McConnell have joined with Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle and Diane Feinstein in support of economic sanctions against Burma. Democrat Tom Lantos and Republicans Henry Hyde and Peter King support the measure in the House of Representatives. Economic pressure could have some effect because Burma's military rulers control and are sustained by its economy. The State Department and the White House support these efforts to pressure Burma's military rulers to release Suu Kyi. The United States must sustain the pressure for democracy in southeast Asia. If we hesitate, Burma's long delayed hope of freedom could be lost for yet another generation.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Thomas Gunn - 6/21/2003

06.21.03 ~0635

[going at it in Burma for decades and detaining Suu Kyi will probably make it worse.]

Why would it make it worse, Isn't she for Democracy in action?

[the US exports them aplenty,]

While I can't dispute your claim, (you might provide a link) would those be the same guns protected by the 2nd, and commonly purchased by the militia?

[Is that getting high on the Second Amendment, or what?]

I don't know does Mexico and points south have a 2nd amendment?


Dave E Grogit - 6/20/2003

Oh the poor countries which don't have John Wayne to protect their precious SUVs and gansta rap CDs, and fine inspiring high schools like Columbine to teach them geography. How do Holland, Sweden and Costa Rica do it ? Safe streets, people can say what they want, and the populace is not armed to the teeth. Strange, these exotic places on the other side of the flat earth.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 6/19/2003

The regime and armed opposition groups and "tribal" formations--most famously the Karens--have been going at it in Burma for decades and detaining Suu Kyi will probably make it worse.

There appears to be access to weapons just about everywhere in the Third World, Mr. Gunn, in part because the US exports them aplenty, resists limiting the trade, and the results have been devastating, especially in Africa.

The flow of weapons into undeveloped regions has been around for a long time, often--as in Burma and US inner cities--linked to the drug trade; Ollie North and the Contras in the 80s were just following what used to be called "meridian commerce" stretching back to the early 20th century, when gun runners in San Antonio's west side (and here in St. Louis, probably because of a Missouri Pacific Railroad connection)financed the trade with drug money for various revolutionary and bandido gangs in Mexico and points south. Miami's still a center for it.

Is that getting high on the Second Amendment, or what?

Thomas Gunn - 6/18/2003

06.18.03 ~2210

Be my guest Ralph, I have my hands full here keeping the tyranists who know what's best for me at bay.

What I find peculiar Ralph is your suggestion, as if that may be the only solution but at least one solution.


Note; Beecher's Bibles were cases of firearms sent to abolitionists marked "Bibles".

Ralph E. Luker - 6/18/2003

I take it from your last comment that you are _assuming_ that Burma's military regime has gun control laws in place. I think we don't _know_ that. But, in whether or no, shall we band together to ship a few "Beecher's Bibles" to Burma?

Thomas Gunn - 6/18/2003

06.18.03 ~1635


To answer your questions:



I doubt they can afford much in the way of guns either.

As to your last, are you being a bit jaded, and so the people are being left to their own misery?

See what happens when folks are prevented from offering resistance to tryanny? And that's not being cynical.


Ralph E. Luker - 6/18/2003

Thomas, Do I detect a jaded cynicism in your commentary? Surely not. I have no idea whether the regime in Rangoon has gun control laws, but with a $1200 per capita annual income I doubt that ordinary folk can afford very sophisticated weaponry. Since Burma appears not to be "swimming in oil," I also doubt that our current regime in Washington is much interested in acts of imperialistic liberation.

Thomas Gunn - 6/18/2003

06.18.03 ~1220


It is a good thing the people of Burma don't have access to guns, like the folks in the US do. There could be wholesale slaughter in the streets if the people were to meet the force of tyranny with a little force of their own.

And the bright side, as long as the people accept their yoke of military dictatorship, they will survive not be murdered and can cling to the hope that the international community will work it's sanctions magic for Democracy.

As an aside, Ralph, is there any guarantee the little lady would be any different than what the Burmese suffer now? Also would you support a little US imperialism?