Aung San Suu Kyi Visits Sandhurst

29/10/2013 13:53 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

On Friday the 25th of October 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi visited and spoke at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS). I'm extremely privileged to have attended this event. Whilst writing this I've attempted to add value to the notes/scribbles I took.

In Burmese politics, Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) is the opposition leader, and also leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Within Burma, she is known to many simply as "the lady" or sometimes as Daw Suu (Mother Suu). After defying the brutal military regime of Burma, she subsequently spent 15 years under house arrest before being released in 2010. Her father General Aung San, known in Burma as Bogyoke (General), was the founder of the modern Burmese army. He is also regarded as the architect of Burmese independence from the British, prior to his assassination in 1947.

ASSK stated that the aim of her visit to Sandhurst was "coming to learn, not to teach" in order to learn about how our armed forces are trained. It was stated that whilst the modern Burmese Army was formed to rid the country of the British, it was not because of dislike but because they wanted freedom.

"The British people admire the army more than doctors"

The admiration that British people have for the armed forces, is something she believes is due to the selflessness and sacrifice they have undertaken. Selflessness at the core of an honourable and respectful armed forces is something ASSK strongly believes in. Her visit to Sandhurst was to find out how to create an army that doesn't seek power. The commander in chief of the Burmese armed forces appoints the home minister, who in turn has to be a serving member of the armed forces. This means that civilian forces in Burma, are effectively under the control of the military.

ASSK quipped that "England only had to deal with the Irish, Welsh and Scottish. Burma has had to deal with an entirely more diverse population" which is an extremely pertinent point, especially when considering the 135 different ethnic groupings recognised by Burma's constitution. However, recent years have since a large scale diversification of certain areas of the UK as well.

Her belief is that every organisation (including the armed forces) should know its place, knowing what it should and shouldn't do. ASSK is a believer that a country should not be the servant of the armed forces, but that the country should be the foundation. She remarked that people should serve to lead, not lead to serve. ASSK also thinks that what is needed, is an armed forces that operates under civilian authority and realises the importance of the civilian.

Reflecting on people who are trained to be leaders, ASSK thinks that to be a good leader you also need to be a good follower as well. She considers leadership is making the right decision at the right time, with physical hardship being able to help develop grace under pressure, allowing individuals to keep a cool mind. This is of course especially useful in life and death situations. ASSK echoes that victory at any price should not be aimed for; that it is only a victory when your integrity remains intact; and that service is the sense of putting those who follow, ahead of yourself.

She discussed a great affection for the armed forces of Burma, though this has led many people within Burma to criticise her. The key point is that she believes you should have respect for institutions that are supposed to be selfless, "they serve to lead". Burma may be on the road to democracy, but still has a long way to go. ASSK reasons that the best armed force is one that seeks to do itself out of a job (pre-emptive conflict resolution).

"The Ancient Greeks respected their heroes more than the gods, mainly as their heroes were mortal and risked everything through their actions. Like Ulysses, we are on a journey as mortals, we should live as mortals as best we can."

ASSK recognised many of these qualities in Sandhurst. ASSK then asked those present, to question what life is about, to look back and see what we have done, looking at what makes it worthwhile to be a human being.

"Only if you know what you want, can you inspire others to do what they are capable of. Good leaders know how to nurture."

ASSK told a story about an occasion when government officials tried persuading local farmers of the need to widen a road. The first reaction was to offer compensation for the land farmers would lose, which was in the region 8ft of land either side of the old road. After engagement with the farmers and explaining benefits the widened road would bring, farmers refused the compensation. The farmers proceeded to offer 10ft of land (either side). The people viewed respect and engagement with the civilian population as highly important.

ASSK again made light work of relieving tension through the use of humour, whilst making a very serious point "15 years under house arrest is easier [than Sandhurst]." She discussed an officer during WW2 who stated that a great leader needs an acquired mind, sufferance and a sense of the ridiculous. ASSK has a strong belief that to be an effective leader you need both compassion and wisdom, and that it is not enough for a military to want to serve; it needs to have compassion and the skills to do the job as well.

"Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield"

ASSK quoted Tennyson's poem Ulysses, familiar to some as the extract of the poem read by Judi Dench's character during the Bond film Skyfall. Using it to reinforce the importance and values of leadership, of which she heavily portrayed during the lecture.

"If you don't know where you are heading, how do your followers know where to go? Service is a vision that goes beyond your own person, for the benefit of humankind."

To ASSK, the de-politicisation of the Burmese army could be possible. She recognises that doing so would require learning from the armed forces of other countries. ASSK specified that the best armed forces are apolitical, expressing concern that the politicisation of the Burmese armed forces is a stumbling block. She requested help to aid the Burmese army in becoming as professional, and effective as possible; but also help in how to depoliticise it.

Interestingly, ASSK did not condemn either Muslims or Buddhists for their part in recent ethnic violence in Burma. She did state that a government must protect its minorities. In Burma the Muslims are a minority, but she remarks that Buddhists are a minority in the world.

"To get rid of hate, the fear between different ethnic groups needs to be removed. The government should make a genuine attempt to prevent attacks, as we are all the same people". Tensions need to be defused between different ethnic groups, with a need of the rule of law to make people feel safe and secure. Importantly, people also need to feel that they have access to justice."

Something struck me at this point during ASSK's lecture, I wasn't quite sure what it was until later on that evening; but it was certainly concerning. The Muslim Rohingya community are denied citizenship and also face a wide range of restrictions on several aspects of their lives. It is hazardous for anyone (even ASSK) to link a perceived fear of Muslim global power, with any kind of mitigation towards what has been considered by many, to be ethnic cleansing. After a little research, there are segments of the media which caution along similar lines.

"Burma is not a wholly democratic country at all, the greatest problem facing Burma's steps towards democracy is the constitution. Unless we reform our constitution, then democracy can never take place."

When asked who has had the greatest effect on her life, ASSK stated that it was "her people". If you heard those words from a British politician, you would likely be a little sceptical. The sense of nobility and dignity which appears to flow from ASSK, has a great effect in terms of neutralising such cynicism.

In 1990, the National League for Democracy won 59% of the national vote and 81% (392 of 485) of the seats in the Burmese Parliament. ASSK had been detained under house arrest prior to these elections. Further elections were boycotted by the NLD until bi-elections in 2012, where the NLD contested 44/45 seats, winning 43 of them. If ASSK becomes president in 2015, she stated that she would do everything possible to make sure that Burma does not become a one party state under the NLD.

"People often fear change, because they fear what is new and difference"

Whilst I sat in Churchill Hall at Sandhurst, I truthfully believed and accepted that ASSK is a tremendously inspiring person. She has faced hardship and trials to an extent that many of us never will. She is perceived to be fighting a good fight, against an oppressive but increasingly mellowing regime.

However, during this most recent visit to the UK she has not visited the organisations which lent such support during her house arrest. Nor was it expected that she would visit the Burmese community in the UK. I mean no disrespect saying the following; but however inspiring and brilliant she may genuinely be, Aung San Suu Kyi remains a politician.

It may be that she has deliberately avoided any situation where vigorous and frank debate was likely to occur. After all, such debate may have overshadowed any good feeling and progress that may evolve from this latest visit to the UK. The historical prevalence of familial dynasties in Asia, may yet provide some with a cynicism that could be hard to shake. Though as they say, the final proof will be in the pudding; or in this case, how Burma moves on from 2015 when it is widely believed that Aung San Suu Kyi will be elected President.

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