Aung San Suu Kyi is the most famous democracy campaigner in the world and today – thanks to you – she is free. Her prolonged period of house arrest has come to an end because of the unremitting pressure applied by millions of people around the world who believe that no injustice can last forever. But her release from house arrest – where she has spent 15 of the last 21 years – is only a partial victory, because her liberation and that of the Burmese people will not be complete until she is able to take up her position as the rightful leader of her country.
Last Sunday’s Burmese elections were an exercise in public relations, not an exercise in public participation. The constitution, brought in by the generals, enshrines the idea that the president, who is not accountable to parliament, must be either a former or serving soldier, and head a government which need not include a single elected MP. The decision to free Aung San Suu Kyi shows the junta realise that having a single iconic focus for resistance is counterproductive, but we have no evidence that they have any intention of weakening their own position or allowing genuine democratic reform.
During two decades I have offered Aung San Suu Kyi and her family all the support I could give and have written to her many times to say that all over Britain there are people who hold her in their thoughts and prayers. I met with her husband Michael Aris – who later died from cancer without ever being allowed to see her again – and I promised him that I would do whatever I could to be of help.
For more than 20 years Aung San Suu Kyi’s family have endured the pain of separation, and their strength is an inspiration to us all. They have been sustained not only by the bravery of monks and other Burmese protestors who have defied the repression to swear public allegiance to the democratic cause, but also by the global solidarity which has been marshalled by the Burma Campaign UK, Avaaz.org and others.
Last weekend, when I guest-edited my wife Sarah’s Twitter stream to raise awareness of Aung San Suu Kyi’s plight, I was overwhelmed by how many people from all over Britain and the world see this as one of the defining causes of our time. There are of course grave injustices elsewhere, and we must never forget the agonies in Darfur, the brutality in Zimbabwe, and the steady silent loss of life that extreme poverty inflicts on thousands of people every day. But that there are many draws on our compassion should never excuse turning our back on such a grotesque abuse of human rights as that inflicted on Burma’s democracy leader. One tweet from Amnesty was particularly sobering: “No one under 38 – half of Burma’s population – has voted before.” That an entire population could reach middle age without ever casting a ballot – and then be offered only a voting paper without the country’s main opposition party – is a testament to the staying power and brutality of the junta.
The democratisation of Burma will be hard, but it is not impossible. The web is our weapon. Through it people of good conscience can organise and apply precisely the sort of pressure which brought about today’s release. But just as importantly, through it and other forms of new technology activists in Burma can tell the world about what is happening. That is nowhere more apparent than in the brilliant film Burma VJ, made by video journalists who smuggled footage out of the country. In the trailer there is a chilling sequence where somebody on the phone is watching an attack on protesters out of a window and explaining it to his friend: “Who did they shoot?”
“A guy with a camera.”
The generals fear scrutiny, evidence, solidarity. In short, they fear you.
The liberation of Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the great victories of people power in our time – let us together ensure that the liberation of her country is the next.
Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister and member of parliament for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.