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Burma: some Nobel thoughts
Friday, 08 June 2012 16:38

In 1991, Burmese political hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, was under house arrest and unable to collect the Nobel Peace Prize awarded for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.  Her son, Alexander Aris, delivered an acceptance speech on her behalf.

With Burma finally opening up, Aung San Suu Kyi is now permitted to travel, and on 16 June, 2012, she finally delivered her Nobel Lecture in Oslo, Norway.  It was a moving and insightful lecture.

During her days of house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi felt as though she were no longer a part of the real world. In her own words, "What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me ... And what was more important, the Nobel Prize had drawn the attention of the world to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. We were not going to be forgotten ...  the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world".

Aung San Suu Kyi considers herself fortunate to be living in "an age when democracy and human rights are widely, even if not universally, accepted as the birthright of all".  During her time under house arrest, she often drew strength from her favourite passages in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

" …… disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspirations of the common people,

…… it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law . . ."

Over the past year, there have been steps towards democracy in Burma.  While the best-known prisoners of conscience like Aung San Suu Kyi have been released, there is however a fear that the remainder, the unknown ones, will be forgotten.

Burma is a country of many ethnic nationalities and since independence in 1948, there never has been a time when the whole country was at peace.  It has not been able to develop the trust and understanding necessary to remove causes of conflict.

The government's recent reform measures "can be sustained only with the intelligent cooperation of all internal forces: the military, our ethnic nationalities, political parties, the media, civil society organizations, the business community and, most important of all, the general public ... the international community has a vital role to play. Development and humanitarian aid, bi-lateral agreements and investments should be coordinated and calibrated to ensure that these will promote social, political and economic growth that is balanced and sustainable. The potential of our country is enormous. This should be nurtured and developed to create not just a more prosperous but also a more harmonious, democratic society where our people can live in peace, security and freedom."

Aung San Suu Kyi concludes "When I joined the democracy movement in Burma it never occurred to me that I might ever be the recipient of any prize or honour. The prize we were working for was a free, secure and just society where our people might be able to realize their full potential."

In his acceptance speech, more than 20 years ago, her son Alexander Aris said:

"I personally believe ... she has come to be a worthy symbol through whom the plight of all the people of Burma may be recognised ... The plight of those in the countryside and towns, living in poverty and destitution, those in prison, battered and tortured; the plight of the young people, the hope of Burma, dying of malaria in the jungles to which they have fled; that of the Buddhist monks, beaten and dishonoured."

"We must also remember that the lonely struggle taking place in a heavily guarded compound in Rangoon is part of the much larger struggle, worldwide, for the emancipation of the human spirit from political tyranny and psychological subjection."

"This regime has through almost thirty years of misrule reduced the once prosperous 'Golden Land' of Burma to one of the world's most economically destitute nations. In their heart of hearts even those in power now in Rangoon must know that their eventual fate will be that of all totalitarian regimes who seek to impose their authority through fear, repression and hatred. When the present Burmese struggle for democracy erupted onto the streets in 1988, it was the first of what became an international tidal wave of such movements throughout Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa."

So the Burmese people, who were one of the very first in modern times to rise up against their totalitarian regime, can now see signs of progress to democracy and respect for human rights.  However, they have enormous challenges in front of them in terms of achieving a free, secure and just society where people can realize their full potential.

These challenges include the backward state of the economy, the low human capital of its people and its weak basic institutional capacities.  But the challenges also include the fact that longstanding totalitarian regime is still in power, albeit with a softer heart.

And many outside countries have their eyes on Burma's very rich natural resources, and its strategic location between China, India and South East Asia.  For example, although the Burmese government is seeking some distance from China, that country still has a very active presence in the country.  For its part, the US is keenly trying to sway Burma out of the China camp and into its own.  Other Western countries are also lining up.  And both the ASEAN countries and India are also after Burma's resources.

There is much to worry about.  History shows that countries which are rich in natural resources suffer from the "paradox of plenty" and rarely succeed in development.  Countries that are political footballs between major powers suffer similarly.  And without a clean and decisive regime change, there is always the risk of a go-slow in policy change or even a return to old-ways.






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