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How to free Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi

CSM, August 11, 2009

As Obama reviews US policy toward the Burmese regime, he must look to the country's Buddhists

Washington, USA -- In at least two of Asia's battlegrounds for democracy, it is sometimes women who often have their ear to the ground more than men; that have been pivotal political players.

In the Philippines, the passing of Corazon Aquino this month reminded the world of how much "people power" was key to ousting a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986. Her rallying of common folk in pacifist protests sent a ricocheting message to the world that inspired uprisings from South Korea to the Soviet bloc.

A second reminder of an Asian woman rallying the masses came Tuesday with a harsh verdict against Burma's democracy champion, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel Peace Prize winner now faces a further 18 months in detention for harboring an uninvited American in her house. Her mere presence as a voice of the people for freedom keeps the ruling generals on the defensive. Ever since her role in a popular uprising in 1988 – driven in part by the model set by Aquino – she and her millions of followers have been thwarted in seeking democracy.

The verdict against Ms. Suu Kyi has set off a renewed debate in the West about how to influence Burma (also known as Myanmar). The court decision may speed up the Obama administration's review of past US policy, which includes stiff economic sanctions on the country.

Such sanctions have allowed China a large opening to dominate Burma and its economy, providing wealth to the regime in Rangoon even as common Burmese suffer. Some in Congress want President Obama to now "engage" the generals as a way to counter China's sway over its Southeast Asian neighbor. Others prefer to harden the isolation of the country.

Much of this debate ignores the fact that it is the Burmese people who need to muster the will to overthrow their corrupt rulers – as the Filipinos did in 1986. Other countries can assist that process up to a point. And it's not clear when that tipping point might come. If anything, the West must be patient while also supportive of "the people."

Suu Kyi's appeal lies in part from her backing by Buddhist monks. They are an everyday presence in Burmese life. And in ancient days, it was often the leading Buddhist clergy, based on their close reading of the people's will, who decided whether a king should stay or fall. A ruler's legitimacy rested on the views of Buddhist believers, who revere monks for their compassion and pacifism, symbolized by their daily walks door to door with begging bowls asking for alms – mainly from the women in a home.

Just as China suppresses the views of the Dalai Lama in Buddhist Tibet, the regime in Burma has suppressed the monkhood, along with Suu Kyi.

Yet it is the spiritual desires of the Burmese that can empower monks to act and to demand that Suu Kyi be released and that democracy be allowed.

If the West wants to save Burma, it must look for ways to "engage" the monks. Out of the monks' humility and compassion – feminine qualities, even in the political arena – the people will rally someday to help free their real leader from the shackles of a long-overdue detention.

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