Guest post by Christina Fink
On December 2nd, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her house in Burma (renamed Myanmar by the military government in 1989). It was truly a historic meeting. Aung San Suu Kyi had spent most of the past 22 years under house arrest, but was freed in November 2010. President Thein Sein, a former military general who was inaugurated in March 2011, has surprised Burmese citizens and the world by introducing tentative political and economic reforms and reaching out to Aung San Suu Kyi and the United States.
Hillary Clinton’s visit was meant to encourage the government to commit to further reforms, as well as to demonstrate support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic movement. Hillary Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi gave a joint press conference on Aung San Suu Kyi’s porch, which ended with a heartfelt embrace. Clearly these two women feel great affection for each other, and for Burmese inside and outside the country, it was an ecstatic moment.
In the press conference and other recent statements, Aung San Suu Kyi emphasized the need for the rule of law and the cessation of civil war in Burma. If there were rule of law, meaning independent courts as well as protections for freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, there would be no more political prisoners.
Currently there are several hundred prisoners of conscience, including a number of women. In 2009, Hla Hla Win was sentenced to 27 years in prison for her undercover reporting on the second anniversary of the monks’ 2007 protests and other sensitive stories for an exile media outlet. In 2008, Nilar Thein was sentenced to 65 years in prison because of her leading role in non-violent political protests in 2007 and earlier. Her husband is also a political prisoner, and their young daughter must now be raised by her husband’s parents.
In the ethnic states, decades of civil war have resulted in widespread destruction and displacement, while countless girls and women have been raped. As Burmese women’s groups and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Burma have documented, Burma Army soldiers commit rape with impunity. While for decades, the Burmese military leadership has sought to force the country’s non-Burman populations into submission, Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a genuine union of Burma in which the rights of ethnic minorities would be respected. If she, the United States government, and others can persuade Burma’s military leadership that a federal system of government is viable, then genuine peace can be restored and the healing process can begin.
If all goes according to plan, Aung San Suu Kyi will run for parliament in an upcoming by-election for a number of vacant seats. She is encouraging other women to run as well. They are likely to push for more attention on health, education, poverty alleviation, and humanitarian assistance.
Should the reform process continue, Burma could at last move toward recognizing and valuing the contributions of all its citizens. That would really be something to celebrate.
Christina Fink is a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. An anthropologist who has focused on Burma for many years, she is the author of Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule (2009).