Michelle Obama and Burma’s Suu Kyi

Published on June 18, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Asia Sentinel – June 18, 2009

In the January 15th opinion editorial page of The Washington Times, I wrote an article entitled “Thank you, Laura; please tell Michelle!” with the optimism that Michelle Obama, the incoming first lady, will carry on the activities of Laura Bush, the outgoing first lady.

Laura’s unprecedented involvement, for any U.S. first lady, had helped highlight the plight of Burmese people to the international community. Convening a roundtable discussion at the 61st U.N. General Assembly in New York; making a moving statement from the White House’s James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, and visiting Burmese refugee camps at the Thai-Burma border were some notable legacies of Laura on Burma.

“As you are packing up to vacate the White House, Laura, please tell Michelle Obama, the incoming first lady, to continue what you have started. This very important mission needs to continue until we see a genuine democratic society in Burma where the rights of every ethnic group are equally respected” was printed in the last paragraph of the article.

When Michelle became the first lady of the United States, millions of Americans and people from around the world were excited to see the dawn of a new era in the American history. I was one, among the hundreds of thousands of people, who were braving the chilling weather to join the inaugural program of the first African-American president on January 20.

Though it is not an elected position, the voice of any sitting American first lady has a convincing power. Laura’s strong personal interest on Burma contributed to president Bush’s policy on Burma. The Bush administration made the right move by nominating an envoy for Burma, which unfortunately was not confirmed. This is something the Obama administration should not abandon.

Not as lucky as Michelle Obama is Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest. She is currently facing trial for alleged violation of her house arrest by sheltering an American visitor in her home. The court postponed a closing argument date to June 26.

The court’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 it is long overdue for her to face a fair trial in the court of law. The military sees her as a threat to its power. The international community should not be dismayed if Suu Kyi is convicted and given prison terms or her house confinement being extended.

Like Michelle, Suu Kyi was little known to the Burmese politics before 1988. Coming to nurse her ailing mother gave Suu Kyi the opportunity to rise to a national political stardom. As the daughter of Aung San, who negotiated Burma’s independence from the British, and coupled by her rousing speech during a pro-democracy demonstration in Rangoon won the hearts of Burmese people. “I could not, as my father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on,” she said in a speech in Rangoon on 26 August 1988.

In 2007, Aung San Suu Kyi was quoted saying “Please use your liberty to promote ours.” Despite being held incommunicado in her lakeside Rangoon home for many years, she has shown commitment to her political belief. “She would not be doing politics if she were afraid of the consequences,” said Nyan Win, one of her lawyers, on June 11.

It has now been over one hundred days since the Obama family has occupied the White House. However, we have yet to hear the first lady speaking out for the oppressed people of the world, including the people of Burma. This Southeast Asian nation of an estimated 50 plus million population has been beleaguered by political unrest for over four decades.

There is a continued destruction of villages in the eastern part of the country. The unabated exodus of refugees across the international borders is an evidence of the military’s atrocities.

With her background as a lawyer, there is no doubt about Michelle’s knowledge and ability to stand up for human rights and injustice in judiciary system. It is rather her will and courage that will do the job.

Regardless of the outcome of Suu Kyi’s trial, the Obama administration needs to engage the military junta in one way or another. The model of six-party North Korean nuclear talks should be considered seriously as one feasible solution.

While Washington is reviewing its policy on Burma, the first lady should use her freedom and influence for coalescing international support to restore a democratic society in the Union of Burma. Both carrot and stick are needed to engage the Burmese military generals.

Aung San Suu Kyi is largely seen to be the unifying force among the different ethnic nationalities of the Union of Burma. Her courage and resilience is an inspiration to many around the world. She will spend June 19, her 64th birthday, inside the notorious Insein prison.

The Burmese pro-democracy groups would love to hear the African-American first lady speaking out for human rights and democracy in their country. Such initiative on the part of Michelle will boost the morale of many activists and help keep alive the flame of the democratic movement.

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 the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers.