Finding freedom under Myanmar’s military

The army’s sentencing of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi will only put a spotlight on her ideas of mental liberation.

Myawaddy TV via AP
Deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, left, and former President Win Myint, sitt before a special court last May.

Once a global icon for democracy and human rights, Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced by Myanmar’s military on Monday to two years in prison. The charges against the Nobel Peace Prize winner are considered as bogus as the army’s claim to rule after a coup against her elected government nine months ago.

Yet with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi now again facing a long confinement, she has one thing going for her: Democracy activists in Myanmar know what sustained her throughout a previous period of forced isolation.

During the trial, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s fearless demeanor was a reminder of how she endured 15 years under house arrest until her release in 2010. Like other famed prisoners of conscience, she said afterward in a series of lectures for the BBC that “fear is the first adversary we have to get past when we set out to battle for freedom, and often it is the one that remains until the very end.”

She advised the people of Myanmar to “live like free people in an unfree nation” and to fall back on inner resources of strength and endurance. When asked after her house arrest how it felt to be free, she said that she was no different “because my mind had always been free.” She saw no need to forgive the military because “I don’t think they really did anything to me.”

Her words are an echo of two other democracy fighters given prison sentences this year.

In February, Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was sentenced in Russia on trumped-up charges. He told supporters that “iron doors slammed behind my back with a deafening sound, but I feel like a free man.”

In September, a pro-democracy leader in Belarus, Maria Kolesnikova, was sentenced to 11 years after telling her supporters in an interview with a German newspaper: “We have already won now. ... We have conquered our fear and our indifference. This is most important.”

This idea about a need for personal liberation first builds on a strong legacy of democracy fighters. Nelson Mandela, for example, said of his attitude toward his South African captors, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Few of these icons are without their flaws. Mr. Mandela once advocated violence. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi seemed to support the military’s 2017 assault on Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. Yet what stands out are their actions based on their inherent liberation from fear. They may be prisoners of conscience, but their conscience is hardly a prisoner.

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