Aung San Suu Kyi and the Violent Stifling of Dissent

I am disgusted to hear the news this morning of the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against “Occupy” protesters in Oakland, CA. Disgusted, but not surprised given the hateful and divisive political culture that America has devolved into. It is an affront to First Amendment of the the Constitution, which rightist claim to worship word for word, to politically plural liberal democracy and to human rights as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the United States is a major signatory.

It is fitting then, that I write today about Burmese democracy activist and political philosopher, Aung San Suu Kyi. I had the pleasure of attending her acceptance ceremony for this year’s Wallenberg Medal, given to “outstanding humanitarians whose actions on behalf of the defenseless and oppressed reflect the heroic commitment and sacrifice of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest during the closing months of World War II”.

Aung San Suu Kyi was unable to travel, as she would likely not be allowed to return to Burma. She has spent much of the last two decades under house arrest, for the simple crime of having questioned single party, authoritarian rule. Her celebrity has protected her from violent suppression,though her followers are not so lucky. Affectionately known as “Daw Suu” by her supporters, she taped her acceptance speech and had it shipped to the US for the event. A live question and answer session through Skype followed the acceptance speech.

Her speech was as exceptional as many that she has given before. Although known as an pro-democracy activist, fighting for positive and non-violent political change in her troubled country, she should well be recognized as a great political philosopher. Her speeches are brilliant, mixing her calls for a radical and overdue political transformation of Burma with deep political reflection, philosophy and Burmese Buddhist thought.

Her calls for a peaceful conversion of Burma to a multiparty democracy were relevant to today’s very depressing news. It is even more depressing that she repeatedly used the United States as an example of a model democracy. When asked about the political transformations occurring in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and whether these countries were truly ready for democracy, given a present trend of repression occurring in Egypt at the moment, she quickly pointed out that the United States also has a deep history of repression. She pointed out that we, as a nation, have moved on from violence to democracy through verbal, rather than violent, argument. There may be deep divisions within our country, but violent repression is largely over.

That is, until recently. It is depressing to me to see pictures of young people hit by rubber bullets, to see tear gas thrown to stifle free assembly, and worse yet, to hear very little from the rightist establishment that is the target of these protests, however confused and unfocused the OWS messages may be. It is sad that, we as a model for worldwide democracy are slowly watching a return to Civil Rights/Vietnam era state backed violence.

Daw Suu’s primary message is that oppressive governments succeed through the creation of fear. Daw Suu said, “Fear renders us dumb and passive. Fear paralyzes.” If citizens are afraid, they are weak and easily controlled. If they are free from fear, they are invincible. In the best case, the haphazard, targeted and violent measures of later will solidfy the resolve of Americans to question the authoritarian machine. In the worst case, it will instill fear in our nations young people and render them silent. If the latter occurs, and young Americans succumb to fear, we are finished as a nation.


From Daw Suu’s landmark speech, “Freedom From Fear:”

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 corruption. Chanda-gati, corruption induced by desire, is deviation from the right path in pursuit of bribes or for the sake of those one loves. Dosa-gati is taking the wrong path to spite those against whom one bears ill will, and moga-gati is aberration due to ignorance. But perhaps the worst of the four is bhaya-gati, for not only does bhaya, fear, stifle and slowly destroy all sense of right and wrong, it so often lies at the root of the other three kinds of corruption. Just as chanda-gati, when not the result of sheer avarice, can be caused by fear of want or fear of losing the goodwill of those 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.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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