Before Aung San Suu Kyi and her party won most of the seats in Sunday’s election, she often spoke of people in Myanmar (Burma) with spiritual authority. She wasn’t talking about herself – despite being a heroine for democracy and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Rather, as she campaigned from town to town amid crowds of admirers, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi would always take time to meet with local Buddhist monks, often donating alms to the abbots. They are so respected by devout Burmese for their humility and commitment to peace that they historically have been able to bestow something very powerful to a leader: moral legitimacy.
Monks were on the front lines in 1988 when the Burmese first protested against military rule. They rose up again in 2007 on behalf of the people to protest price hikes in food and fuel – and were brutally repressed. “They were using the spiritual authority to move for the basic rights of the people,” said Aung San Suu Kyi last year. The monks also heavily criticized the Army for its bungled response to the 2008 cyclone Nargis as well as its mismanagement of the economy.
The monks’ moral barbs may be a major reason that Sunday’s elections took place at all. Half the battle in Myanmar has been to prick the conscience of younger officers who respect monks or who at least want to be liked by the people.
The 2007 monk-led uprising, known as the Saffron Revolution for the color of the monks’ robes, likely helped boost reformers in the military. (Another possible reason was the military’s concerns that Myanmar was getting too close to China.) By 2010 long-serving dictator Than Shwe stepped down. A new constitution was written, albeit one that keeps the military largely in control.
Reformist former Gen. Thein Sein became president, releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and meeting with her last August. She trusted him enough to let her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), compete for the small number of seats – only 7 percent of parliament – in the April 1 election.
The NLD may be stuck with only a small voice in parliament for a long time, but Aung San Suu Kyi knows that popular legitimacy counts for more than official power in her Asian nation of 60 million. She described her party’s victory as “a triumph of the people who have decided that they have to be involved in the political process in this country.”
It was also triumph over fear. “Unless people get human rights with freedom from fear, a democratic system cannot be established and developed,” she said in a televised campaign speech.
During last year’s Arab Spring, Aung San Suu Kyi admired both the courage of protesters in Tunisia and the soldiers who did not shoot them. The lesson she learned was that moral and spiritual legitimacy can eventually win over fear and bullets.
In Syria, that lesson is still a work in progress. But perhaps Syrian protesters can take heart that yet another country, Myanmar, has used the lesson to move closer to freedom.