Changes in Burma
In 1988 the people of Burma, silenced by years of repression, took to the streets to call for an end to the military dictatorship. Unarmed civilians - young and old - were gunned down by the Burmese army. The death toll that followed exceeded 10,000.
Desperate for foreign investment, the generals foolishly allowed free elections, believing that no single party could win. Instead, the main opposition party won over-whelmingly. Since then the military have refused to hand over power and have imprisoned most of the elected MPs.
Aung San Suu Kyi who became leader of the NLD remains under house arrest, separated from family and friends. The extract below is from a book of her letters and speeches edited by her husband, who has not heard from her for over a year. Suu is silenced but here she, and the people of Burma, are given voice. Other persecuted people of Asia regrettably receive less attention without a Suu to express their hopes and fears.
It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. Most Burmese are familiar with the four a-gati, the four kinds of corruptions. Chanda-gati, corruption induced by desire, is deviation in pursuit of bribes or for the sake of those one loves. Dosa-gati is taking the wrong path to spite those against who one bears ill will, and moga-gati is aberration due to ignorance. Perhaps the worst is bhaya-gati, for not only does bhaya, fear, stifle and slowly destroy all senses of right and wrong, it so often lies at the root of the other kinds of corruption.
Just as chanda-gati, when the result of sheer avarice, can be caused by fear of want or fear of losing the goodwill of those who one loves, so fear of being surpassed, humiliated or injured in some way can provide the impetus for ill will. And it would be difficult to dispel ignorance unless there is freedom to pursue the truth unfettered by fear. With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife, corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched.
Public dissatisfaction with economic hardships has been seen as the chief cause of the movement for democracy in Burma, sparked off by the student demonstrations in 1988. It is true that years of incoherent policies, inept official measures, burgeoning inflation and falling real income has turned the country into an economic shambles. But it was more the difficulties of eking out a barely acceptable standard of living that had eroded the patience of a traditionally good-natured, quiescent people - it was also the humiliation of a way of life disfigured by corruption and fear. The students were protesting not just against the death of their comrades but against the denial of their right to life by a totalitarian regime which deprived the present of meaningfulness and held out no hope for the future. The people of Burma wearied of a precarious state of passive apprehensions where they were 'as water in the cupped hands' of the powers that be.
Emerald cool we may be
As water in cupped hands
But of that we might be
As splinters of glass
In cupped hands.
Glass splinters, the smallest which is sharp, glinting power to defend itself against hands that try to crush, could be seen as a vivid symbol of the spark of courage that is an essential attribute of those who would free themselves from the grip of oppressions.
The effort necessary to remain uncorrupted in an environment where fear is an integral part of everyday existence is not immediately apparent to those fortunate enough to live in states governed by the rule of law. Just laws do not merely prevent corruption by meting out impartial punishment to offenders. They also help to create a society in which people can fulfil the basic requirements necessary for the preservation of human dignity without recourse to corrupt practices. Without such laws, the burden of upholding the principles of justice and common decency falls on ordinary people. It is the cumulative effect on their sustained effort and steady endurance which will change a nation where reason and conscience are warped by fear into one where legal rules exist to promote man's desire for harmony and justice.
In an age when immense technological advances have created lethal weapons which could be, and are, used by the powerful and unprincipled to dominate the weak and helpless, there is a compelling need for a closer relationship between politics and ethics. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations proclaims that 'every individual and every organ of society' should strive to promote the basic rights and freedoms to which all human beings regardless of race, nationality or religion are entitled. But as long as there are governments whose authority is founded on coercion rather than on the mandate of the people, and interest groups which place short-term profits above long term peace and prosperity, concerted international action to protect and promote human rights will remain at best a partially realised struggle. There will continue to be arenas of struggle where victims of oppression have to draw on their own inner resources to defend their inalienable rights as members of the human family.
The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation's development. A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions has little chance of genuine success. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produce the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration. It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influence of desire, ill-will, ignorance and fear.
Saints, it has been said, are the sinners who go on trying. So free men are the oppressed who go on trying and who in the process make themselves fit to bear the responsibilities and to uphold the disciplines which maintain a free society. Among the basic freedoms to which men aspire that their lives might be full and uncramped, freedom from fear stands out as both a means and an end. A people who would build a nation in which strong, democratic institutions are firmly established as a guarantee against state-induced power must first learn to liberate their own minds from apathy and fear.
Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions, courage that could be described as 'grace under pressure' - grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure.
Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends and family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small daily acts of courage which help to preserve man's self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again, for fear is not the natural state of civilised man.