Suu Kyi‚Äôs Release Stirs Guarded Hope among Burma‚Äôs Christians
By Vishal Arora
November 18 (Compass Direct News) ‚Äď The release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Burma on Saturday (Nov. 13) has sparked cautious optimism about human rights among Christians and the country‚Äôs ethnic minorities even as the junta does battle with armed resistance groups.
Freeing her six days after elections, the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar) kept 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi from running in the country‚Äôs first election in 20 years, but ethnic minorities are still ‚Äúvery happy‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúenthused with hope and anticipation,‚ÄĚ said Plato Van Rung Mang, who heads the India chapter of Chin Human Rights Organization.
Suu Kyi is the only leader from the majority Burmese community ‚Äď predominantly Buddhist ‚Äď who is trusted by the ethnic minorities, said Mang, an India-based Christian originally from Burma‚Äôs Chin state, which borders India.
‚ÄúWe have faith in Suu Kyi‚Äôs honesty and leadership, and she has been our hope,‚ÄĚ he added.
The ethnic Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni people ‚Äď many of whom are Christian ‚Äď as well as mostly Buddhist ethnic Shan, Mon and Arakanese (some of them Muslim) people have been fighting for self-determination in their respective states and opposing the military junta‚Äôs policy of centralized control and Burmese dominion.
‚ÄúWe trust that Suu Kyi can fulfill her father‚Äôs ideal and political principles which have been subverted by the Burmese military junta‚Äôs Burmanization policy,‚ÄĚ said Mang. Suu Kyi‚Äôs father, Aung San, was the nation‚Äôs leader at the time of independence and favored autonomy for ethnic minorities.
‚ÄúJust as her father was trusted and held in high esteem by the ethnic people, Aung San Suu Kyi also has the ability to work together with the minorities to build a better, peaceful Burma where the human rights of all citizens are respected and protected,‚ÄĚ said Garrett Kostin, a U.S. citizen who runs the Best Friend Library, built by a Buddhist monk in support of Suu Kyi, in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
While sections of the ethnic communities have been involved in armed resistance against the junta‚Äôs rule, many local residents in the region remain unarmed but are also at risk of being killed in the post-election conflict.
In the wake of the Nov. 7 election, as expected (See www.compassdirect.org, ‚ÄúBurma‚Äôs Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election, Oct. 22), clashes between armed ethnic groups and the Burmese army erupted in three of the seven ethnic states ‚Äď Karen, Shan and Mon ‚Äď mainly along Thailand and China border, reported Thailand-based Burma News International. The violence has resulted in an influx of over 20,000 people into Thailand ‚Äď the largest flow in the last five years.
According to US-based Refugees International, the Thai government forced many of the asylum seekers back.
There are also tensions in Kachin and Karenni states, which could erupt at any time, between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army-North, and the Karenni National Progressive Party.
Rights advocates, however, were still heartened by Suu Kyi‚Äôs release.
It‚Äôs ‚Äúa wonderful opportunity for the ethnic minorities of Burma to unify in support of each other‚Äôs rights and desires,‚ÄĚ said Kostin.
In September 2007, many Buddhist monks joined democracy activists in street protests against the military regime‚Äôs decision to cut fuel subsidies, leading to a sharp rise in gas and diesel prices. Known as the Saffron Revolution, the protests resulted in hundreds of deaths as government security personnel resisted it militarily.
In numerous clashes between the repressive military regime and political opponents and ethnic minorities, over 3.5 million Burmese have been displaced and thousands killed over the years.
Suu Kyi will continue to enjoy the trust of ethnic minorities because ‚Äúshe has been working so hard since the beginning [of her political career] to speak out about the plight of ethnic people with an honest and sincere commitment,‚ÄĚ said Bangkok-based Soe Aung, deputy secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.
Chiang Mai-based Christian relief group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) recalled that Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the National League for Democracy, along with allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament ‚Äúin Burma‚Äôs only truly democratic election‚ÄĚ in 1990. ‚ÄúThe military regime, however, did not recognize the results and continued to hold power,‚ÄĚ it said in a statement.
Last week‚Äôs election was ‚Äúneither free nor fair,‚ÄĚ FBR said, adding that ‚Äúthousands of political prisoners [estimated at 2,200] are still in jail, ethnic minorities are attacked [on a regular basis], and the people of Burma remain under oppression.
‚ÄúStill, we are grateful for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as she is a leader who gives real hope to the people of Burma.‚ÄĚ
An FBR team leader who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled Suu Kyi requesting his prayers when he met with her during a brief period when she was not under house arrest in 1996.
‚ÄúThe Global Day of Prayer for Burma and the ethnic unity efforts we are involved in are a direct result of that meeting,‚ÄĚ the leader said. ‚ÄúAs she told me then, one of her favorite quotes is, ‚ÄėYou will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Some Christians, however, remained cautious.
‚ÄúAlthough San Suu Kyi wants Burma to be a true federal country, there is no certainty in the hearts of the Karen people because they have suffered for very long, and the so-called Burmese have turned their backs on them several times,‚ÄĚ said a Karen Christian from Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph.
La Rip, a Burmese activist in China, also said that while Suu Kyi deserved to enjoy freedom, she and her party ‚Äúdo not seem to have a clear idea on how to solve the long-standing issues‚ÄĚ related to ethnic minorities.
For her part, Suu Kyi spelled out a plan to hold a nationwide, multi-ethnic conference soon after she was freed. Her father held a similar meeting, known as the Panglong Conference, in 1947. Aung San, then representing the Burmese government, reached an agreement with leaders from the Shan, Kachin and Chin states to accept full autonomy in internal administration for the ethnic controlled frontier areas after independence from Britain.
Suu Kyi‚Äôs planned conference is seen as the second Panglong Conference, but it remains uncertain if the new Burmese regime, which is likely to be as opposed to ethnic minorities as the junta, will allow her plan to succeed.
In the awaited election results, the junta‚Äôs proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is likely to have majority in parliament to form the next government. Suu Kyi‚Äôs party had been disbanded by the military regime, and only a small splinter group ran in the election.
It is also feared that Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for nearly 15 years since 1990 until her release last weekend, could face assassination attempts or fresh charges followed by another term under arrest.
Burma has a population of around 50 million, out of which around 2.1 million are estimated to be Christian.