Michelle Obama and Burma's Suu Kyi
|Jun 18, 2009|
Former First Lady Laura Bush's unprecedented involvement with Burma,for any US first lady, helped highlight the plight of Burmese people tothe international community. Convening a roundtable discussion at the61st UN General Assembly in New York, making a moving statement fromthe White House's James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, and visitingBurmese refugee camps at the Thai-Burma border were some of LauraBush's notable legacies on Burma.
When Michelle Obamabecame the first lady of the United States, millions of Americans andpeople from around the world were excited to see the dawn of a new erain American history. I was one, among the hundreds of thousands ofpeople who were braving the chilling weather to join the inauguralprogram of the first African-American president on January 20.
Thoughit is not an elected position, the voice of any sitting American firstlady has a convincing power. Laura's strong personal interest on Burmacontributed to President Bush's policy on the country. The Bushadministration made the right move by nominating an envoy for Burma,which unfortunately was not confirmed. This is something the Obamaadministration should not abandon.
Not as lucky as MichelleObama is Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the past 19 yearsunder house arrest. She is currently facing trial for alleged violationof her house arrest by sheltering an American visitor in her home. Thecourt postponed a closing argument date to June 26.
Thecourt's ultimate verdict is likely to be what the military leaders say.It is not surprising that Aung San Suu Kyi is put on trial. In fact itis long overdue for her to face a fair trial in the court of law. Themilitary sees her as a threat to its power. The international communityshould not be dismayed if Suu Kyi is convicted and given prison termsor her house confinement being extended.
Like Michelle Obama,Suu Kyi was little known to Burmese politics before 1988. Coming tonurse her ailing mother gave Suu Kyi the opportunity to rise tonational political stardom. As the daughter of Aung San, who negotiatedBurma's independence from the British, and coupled by her rousingspeech during a pro-democracy demonstration in Rangoon won the heartsof Burmese people. "I could not, as my father's daughter remainindifferent to all that was going on," she said in the speech on 26 August 1988.
In 2007, Aung San Suu Kyi was quoted saying“Please use your liberty to promote ours.” Despite being heldincommunicado in her lakeside Rangoon home for many years, she hasshown commitment to her political belief. “She would not be doingpolitics if she were afraid of the consequences," said Nyan Win, one ofher lawyers, on June 11.
It has now been over 100 dayssince the Obama family has occupied the White House. However, we haveyet to hear the first lady speaking out for the oppressed people of theworld, including the people of Burma. This Southeast Asian nation of anestimated 50 plus million population has been beleaguered by politicalunrest for over four decades.
There is a continued destructionof villages in the eastern part of the country. The unabated exodus ofrefugees across the international borders is an evidence of themilitary's atrocities.
With her background as a lawyer, thereis no doubt about Mrs Obama's knowledge and ability to stand up forhuman rights and injustice in judiciary system. It is rather her willand courage that will do the job.
Regardless of the outcome ofSuu Kyi's trial, the Obama administration needs to engage the militaryjunta in one way or another. The model of six-party North Koreannuclear talks should be considered seriously as one feasible solution.
WhileWashington is reviewing its policy on Burma, the first lady should useher freedom and influence for coalescing international support torestore a democratic society in the Union of Burma. Both carrot andstick are needed to engage the Burmese military generals.
AungSan Suu Kyi is largely seen to be the unifying force among thedifferent ethnic nationalities of the Union of Burma. Her courage andresilience is an inspiration to many around the world. She will spendJune 19, her 64th birthday, inside the notorious Insein prison.
TheBurmese pro-democracy groups would love to hear the African-Americanfirst lady speaking out for human rights and democracy in theircountry. Such initiative on the part of Mrs Obama would boost the moraleof many activists and help keep alive the flame of the democraticmovement.
Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com)and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma(1947-2004). He has written numerous analytical articles on thepolitics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers.