Congratulations Daw Suu

While politicians and citizens both struggle to dismantle democracy in the United States, we forget that there are others out there that are fighting to create democracy.

In the news this morning, it has been reported that Burmese democracy activist, former political prisoner and political philosopher Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to a parliamentary seat. Her National League for Democracy Party has picked up at least 40 seats. Granted, these are only a fraction of the total number of parliamentary positions (659 total seats in two houses), but even this small victory is cause for jubilation.

Daw Suu, as she is affectionately known among her supporters in Burma, has won what was a seemingly insurmountable battle. Against all odds, and under years of house arrest, she patiently waited for democracy to come to Burma, which struggled under a repressive, autocratic and at times, completely bizarre military government.

In 1996, Suu Kyi stated succinctly the nature of democracy and how it contrasts with authoritarianism, “Agreeing to disagree is a prerogative only of those who live under a democratic system. Under an authoritarian regime, disagreeing can be seen as a crime.”

I have been reading Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom.” Sen’s work on the nature of freedom and democracy has clearly been a major influence on Daw Suu’s own philosophy. Sen notes that freedom cannot exist unless people are able to receive care when they are sick, receive education with which to participate in the greater in discussion and the greater economy, and are free of impediments to speaking freely. The United States, a supposed bastion of democracy, has sadly seen all of these things fade to the background, in favor of the wishes of a small minority of people. Perhaps we need Daw Suu to come and speak for us as well.

I saw Daw Suu speak in 2011, when she received the Wallenberg Prize (which is always presented at the University of Michigan).

“Fear renders us dumb and passive. Fear paralyzes. If we are too frightened to speak out, we can do nothing to promote freedom of speech. If we are too frightened to challenge injustices, we will not be able to defend our right to freedom of belief. Neither will we dare to ask for the rectification of the social and economic ills that make our lives a misery.

For fear anywhere, in any language, belittles, negates, and degrades. It takes courage and commitment to achieve freedom and to uphold it. While there are no laws and institutions to protect basic human rights, individuals have to fall back on their own will to practice and promote the freedoms in which they believe. The support of those who share the commitment helps them greatly in this endeavor.”

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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