Myanmar: the five challenges of Aung San Suu Kyi

by Albertina Soliani

Some questions

The things the public opinion does not know about Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar are many more than the ones it actually knows. More than fifty years of military rule have kept the whole Country isolated, in the virtual silence of the rest of the world.  

The international comments have become more frequent and pressing in the past two years – especially in the West – when Rakhine State has caught the attention of the world.                        The tragedy of Rakhine’s Muslim minority – who calls themselves Rohingya – known as Bengali in the rest of Burma, the latest manifestation of a history that is deep-rooted in the centuries, is proving to be one of the places of debate that will mark Asia in the next few years, the one between Islam and China. Other fires have been lit, such as the Uighurs in northern China, and the recent massacres in Sri Lankan churches.

On the issue of the Muslims of Rakhine, most of the Western media preferred to focus on the role of Aung San Suu Kyi – now leading the government of Myanmar – demolishing her image as the icon of human rights. The avatar of disappointment prevailed over everything else. As if the West were more interested in affirming the principle of respect for universal human rights than its concrete affirmation within the complexity of politics. Little has been said about Myanmar’s internal political conditions, which decisions on the Rakhine issue are largely dependent on, and on the geopolitical context in which the whole sequence of events is embedded, and of Western, Islamic and Asian interests at stake. Little has been said about the international interference, the penetration of terrorists.

And so the great complexity of the situation was sacrificed to the demands of a spectacular simplification, focused on the fall of the icon with which the West had once identified itself.

So what is happening in Myanmar, engaged in a transition that interweaves development and democracy, a rare case in Asia?

What is happening to Aung San Suu Kyi, the figure in whom the world public opinion had placed such great expectations?

What is happening to Europe, which is increasingly marginal with respect to the rest of the world, especially on the Asia front where the new world is rising up? What is happening to the West, which has seemed to withdraw from confrontation, effectively pushing Myanmar into the arms of China? And how could a new dialogue between the West and Asia open up, precisely through its relationship with Myanmar?

Inspiring questions which are closer to reality than the accusations about Aung San Suu Kyi’s alleged silences about the tragedy of the Rakhine Muslims.

My testimony

I met Burma fifteen years ago, when I started reading Aung San Suu Kyi’s book Free from Fear. While I was in the Senate of the Republic, in the early 2000s, in the Parliamentary Party Group of Ulivo, then of the Margherita and finally of the Democratic Party, I was part of the Parliamentary Association Friends of Burma, founded by Sen. Francesco Martone of the Verdi Party. In 2008 I became its President. The parliamentary activity of those years, in support of the liberation of Aung San Suu Kyi and of political prisoners, of a change in Burma towards democracy was intense.

On the day of her release, on 13 November 2010, I made the announcement in Parliament, among bursts of applause.

I have been closely following the story of a Country that was seeking democracy, whilst I felt that ours, in those years, was weakening. In the debate in the Senate Chamber on the law declaring immunity for the five highest offices of the State, I intervened by recalling that the same rule was in force in Myanmar, to protect the military junta.

I first met Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyidaw on 28 February 2013. In the Palace where the Parliamentary group of the NLD – the National League for Democracy – was based, the party born in her home in Rangoon in August 1988. By that time, she had been in Parliament for a year, leading the opposition.

As she entered the room, we hugged. It was like we had always known each other. A history of closeness united us, despite the obstacles of house arrest, geographical distance, English and Burmese which I did not know.

I was with a very dear friend and collaborator of mine, Giuseppe Malpeli. Giuseppe had begun to go to Burma in 2005, bringing the ashes of Lucky to his mother: he was a young Burmese man known in Calcutta, who died in the great tsunami of 26 December 2004. Since then, endless relations with the Burmese people and with Aung San Suu Kyi have flourished.

When we first met, at the end of my parliamentary activity, much had happened between us, and much more would still have happened.

A few months after our first visit, in August 2013, we returned to her and invited her to come to Italy.

In late October of that year she came to Rome, then to Turin, to Bologna, to Parma, to the places of recognition of her commitment to freedom. In Parma she spoke to a thousand students. At the Teatro Regio she attended the performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, on the last evening of the Verdi Festival.

The following year we were forty Italian friends at her home in Yangon, the site of the long arrests. There we sang her Va’ Pensiero.

The Italian Embassy in Yangon, first with Ambassador Giorgio Aliberti and now with Ambassador Alessandra Schiavo has been very active over the past years, whilst the Italian Government works in international venues and the Italian Parliament sent its first delegation to Myanmar in September 2016: it was led by the then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Pierferdinando Casini. Ancient relations unite Italy and Burma. Today Italy and Myanmar are two friendly countries. Within ASEAN, Italy has a priority relationship with Myanmar.

Since then, I often go to Burma, and to her.

With friends of the Association for Italy-Burma Friendship that today bears the name of Giuseppe Malpeli. Giuseppe left us, on the eve of Aung San Suu Kyi’s election victory in 2015.

A long history of friendship, with the sufferings and joys that have accompanied it, brings us together with Aung San Suu Kyi and her people. Projects, exchanges of experiences and visits involve us in different fields, from health to culture, from school to agriculture to business, to dialogue between religions. Institutions and civil society are involved with us, especially the Emilia-Romagna Region and the University of Parma.

It is just the beginning. The sharing of a destiny, which arises from friendship, is something that has to do not only with personal life, but with politics, with the lives of peoples. It stems from common confidence in democracy, the thread that connects us to each other. And it builds the unity of mankind on earth.

During these years my relationship with Myanmar has become a big part of my commitment to democracy.

Today, from Casa Cervi, the Institute dedicated to the memory of the family that has changed history with the Resistance, I feel that the subject of freedom and democracy is one, here with us and in the rest of the world. Both in Europe and in Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi embodies Myanmar

When politics is history, not just chronicle – as in the case of Myanmar – the reflection should be more thoughtful and demanding. Ethics and responsibility are its unavoidable interpretative keys.

Aung San Suu Kyi is not a politician of the moment, just coming out from an electoral competition. Even if she has passed several times through an electoral confrontation, always winning, democratically legitimised.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of her father, General Aung San, Bogyoke, the Father of the Homeland, the author of the independence of the nation from the British Empire. Murdered in Rangoon in the Secretariat Palace (The Secretariat) at age 32 on 19 July 1947. At that time little Aung San Suu Kyi was two years old.

She is the daughter of Daw Khin Kyi, the nurse of the Yangon hospital who would marry the young Aung San, to later become the first woman Minister of Welfare, then Ambassador of her Country in India. 

It is in New Delhi that the young Aung San Suu Kyi would study.

The unity of the Country and the whole Burma are the legacy of her Father and her family that Aung San Suu Kyi will always feel upon her shoulders.[1] She would deal with the profile of the Father in her book Free from Fear, which has made her known to the world.

She would collect this legacy in August 1988, in the tragic days of the student revolt. With her husband Michael Aris and her children Alexander and Kim next to her - her new family with whom she lived in Oxford.

In that fatal August the people called her, through the voice of the students and professors of the University of Yangon. It was not the first time that students had marked a turning point in the history of Burma, even at the cost of their own life. On 26 August 1988, in the Shwedagon Pagoda esplanade, in front of half a million people, she gave her first public speech.

Her Father passed the baton on to his daughter[2].

Then there would have been a long, difficult time of suffering, of loneliness, of isolation, of determination, of deprivation of her loved ones because of the freedom for her people.

A journey that lasted from 1988 to 2010, almost always within the boundary marked by the walls of her home in Rangoon, on University Avenue 54, on Inya Lake, until her final liberation.

This journey has deeply united Aung San Suu Kyi with her people. In sharing the pain that saw the sacrifice of thousands of people, especially young people, imprisoned, tortured, killed. In sharing an unshakable hope for change, in that beacon of democracy that Aung San Suu Kyi kept tenaciously lit in the darkness of Burma.

How much work, how many speeches, how much silence. And how many pitfalls.

Until the general political elections of 8 November 2015 -which were inevitable – when a whole population walked smiling through the streets of the cities and villages towards the polling stations and sent her and her party, the NLD, with its peacock pointing the star on the flag, leading the Country. It was a day of Resurrection.[3]

While the army – the Tatmadaw – continued to retain a large part of political and economic power, according to the Constitution drafted by the military in 2008.

It is the history of Burma that led Aung San Suu Kyi to the Myanmar government, as a moral imperative, with the seal of pain. A sacrifice lived as a choice.[4]

It is the suffering of Burma, with which Aung San Suu Kyi has identified herself.

It is the choice she made, back in 1988, and renewed on 8 November 2015, to take on the political responsibility of the leadership of her people, on the minefield of power that had forged it for decades – the military one – which had made her a political woman. Even before the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, and even after.

Ever since she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 – in the darkness of her home and of Burma – the world has expected her to continue her statements and actions on freedom and human rights. Consistently she chose to take on, as she had always done, the responsibility for the possible political change in her country, without further breakdowns, without further suffering. Without ever losing confidence in the method of non-violence. “Pain is bitter, but the future is not built with the memory of pain”.[5]

Aung San Suu Kyi has always been steadily focussed on the objective and adapted the tools to achieve it with pragmatism. In the long years of detention, of her resistance to the military in the name of her people, Aung San Suu Kyi had used the only instrument she had available: her personal, often silent, testimony and her word, whenever possible. She proclaimed and lived “freedom from fear” when fear imprisoned an entire Country.

Also telling us that fear is the snare of every democracy. And urging us to the commitment towards each other: “Use your freedom to promote ours”.

In 1991 it was Vaclav Havel who favoured the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Aung San Suu Kyi. A clear witness of the value of freedom guarded by our civil society.

Aung San Suu Kyi has returned to Prague in recent years.[6] On the grave of Vaclav Havel. The red thread of human rights stems from a profound, personal suffering.

You can only talk about what you pay a high price for. Sometimes nothing remains but silence, as the only word that can be spoken.

Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar, in its deepest fibers, in its most entrenched hopes.

As a politician, she is entrusted with the mission of building the nation today.

Her name has prophetic meanings in the Burmese language. It contains the name of her Father (Aung San), of her grandmother (Suu), of her mother (Kyi). And it means: Aung winning, San extraordinary, Suu unites, Kyi clear, pristine.

The five challenges of Aung San Suu Kyi

The challenges that Aung San Suu Kyi is called to face – and to face simultaneously – are many and complex. One affects the other, everything is intertwined. They make up the roots at the base of the new history of Burma. She is the key to change because she is the challenge to the established power of the last fifty years. She is facing the challenge of history: after independence, conquered by her Father, democracy, now entrusted into her hands.

The main ones of these challenges can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The first challenge: her political role in front of the world, the Rakhine test

Aung San Suu Kyi is in the hearts of mankind. The awarding of the well-deserved Nobel Prize has turned her into an inspiration for the world. Yet, she has not chosen to wear that dress, to remain enclosed in that frame, to respond to the expectations of the world public opinion.

She chose to respond to the expectations of her own Country, leading it with the choices of politics, in the anomalous and difficult conditions of politics in Myanmar. Only she could do it, and decided to take on this mission. Life as a task, as a responsibility.

She has gone beyond the contemplation of the icon of human rights, she has chosen the concrete action of politics, at the service of her own Country. Even when this could mean defending herself from the image that wanted her to be untouchable in her role as a witness.

Yet, precisely in the choice of a political role for the democracy of her Country, Aung San Suu Kyi gave the highest testimony of her human and political integrity. The strong identification of her destiny with that of her Country has been and still is an example for the world. The faith in democracy as a mission, a life for the construction of democracy, in the historic transition of Myanmar. No break, no change in her between before and after.

The people of Myanmar understood this very well. Aung San Suu Kyi means trust in democracy, in peace, in change for the Burmese people. She is like a Mother.

For them she does not depend on the recognition and awards received nor on their revocation, considered by the people a childish gesture.

And I think it is the same also for her. “Awards come, awards go”, Aung San Suu Kyi once said. The challenges she is facing are so much greater.

I do not know whether the tension experienced especially with some Western Countries in recent times, with her image being questioned, is a challenge for her or rather for the world. Which has in front of it a woman who, in the name of freedom, democracy and human rights, is crossing with her people one of the most mined areas of politics in the contemporary world, in cohabitation with the military power, opening with difficulty, yet with determination and courage, the road to democracy in Asia.

While still, beside her, her companions fall, like the lawyer U Ko Ni, her main constitutional adviser – Muslim – murdered at the airport of Yangon on 27 January 2017. She, and her entourage, did not say a word. Only on the occasion of the thirtieth day after his death – experienced together with his family – did she say: “It was a great loss”. In Burma words and silences have the measure of tragedy, and the strength of testimony.

Accompanying her and supporting her in this passage, instead of distancing ourselves from her, should be the choice of a far-sighted West.

In continuity with her Father, Aung San Suu Kyi paved the way for the exit from the military regime towards democracy, by means of non-violent instruments of the democracy, that is, with politics.

The context may change, but the ethical, political choice remains the same. After being released from house arrest, in the five years that have prepared her electoral victory, and in the next four years as State Counsellor – de facto leader of Myanmar – Aung San Suu Kyi has continued to exercise her political responsibilities as the head of her Country.

In the given conditions, like any politician.

I have always thought of that passage by Bonhoeffer: “For whoever is responsible, the ultimate question is not: how I deal with this affair heroically, but: what the life of the generation that comes next can be. Only from this historically responsible question can fruitful solutions be originated, even if provisionally humiliating. In a word: it is much easier to deal with a matter by keeping to the level of principles than in an attitude of concrete responsibility”.[7]

I have always seen Aung San Suu Kyi act in that way.

A choice, hers, that has normalised the political path of her Country, indeed very anomalous. Not only the daughter of Aung San, not only the Nobel Peace Prize but the leader of a political movement, the State Counsellor who moves in her country, in Asia, in the world, in the complexity of the Burmese history, in the complexity of Asia and the whole world.

Being a politician for the liberation of her own people: this is the moral and human choice that turns Aung San Suu Kyi into the key to understanding Myanmar today and its challenges. And to understand her, greater than the awards she has been given.

Faced with the great events of history, stereotypes are not needed. They can only feed misunderstandings.

And this is what happened when the flag of human rights was used to cover, perhaps, the real contrast with Aung San Suu Kyi on the ground of her economic and political choices, not dependent on international interests.

It is evident that the centrality of money and its global power are foreign to her political point of view. Is this what worries the West?

A more open mind might have investigated more. Starting from the problem of Rakhine, the field where the West has nailed, and crucified, its icon.

Perhaps few people know Aung San Suu Kyi questioned the military about the situation of Rakhine Muslims immediately after her release, as of 2010, and in later years.

And that immediately after taking office in the government, on 1 April 2016, she set up the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, entrusting it to Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General. A choice that placed the issue at an international level.

That a year later, on 25 August, 2017, Kofi Annan gave her the Report with directions for the government she welcomed, while the military distanced themselves from her.

That on the same day ARSA (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Arms) terrorist groups attacked army outposts in Rakhine, making victims. The army’s reaction was very harsh, and the exodus of Muslims from Rakhine to Bangladesh began.

That the Army has full powers over the Home Affairs, the Defense, the Boundaries Ministries, whose ministers are appointed by the Chief of the Army, that the political power of the military is enshrined in the Constitution, with 25% of parliamentary seats appointed by the Army , and so is in the Assemblies of the regional States.
The Rakhine trap - so prepared and served - was also sprang against her. She refused to take part in it. Western media no.

The media that did not mention the geopolitical strategies, the economic interests at stake. And they accused her of silence as silence fell on Myanmar’s difficult and complex political and existential balance.

Aung San Suu Kyi has prepared a plan of interventions in Rakhine to rebuild the villages, prepare the return of the Muslims, support the economic and social development of the whole area, favouring integration in the respect of different ethnic groups and religions in the name of pluralism, whilst the Army has always favoured the religious nationalism. Aung San Suu Kyi has preferred the dialogue with Bangladesh, and with the Countries of the surrounding area. Still politics, in the strategy of Aung San Suu Kyi, whilst the international organisations hastened to withdraw the prizes previously given to her. In a situation whose historical narrative and political analysis are unknown to the world.

Buddhists and Muslims used to live in peace in Arakan, then poverty and despair, extremism and expressions of violence have opened a new phase.

Massimo Morello – one of the rare Western journalists who went to the scene and who is really interested in understanding – wrote: “In Rakhine tribalism materialises tragically as a new geopolitical category. That state – the least developed of Myanmar – with a poverty rate of 78%, has been the focus of Western attention and condemnation since 2012 precisely for the events of the Rohingyas, trapped in a perennial cycle of persecution and escape”.[8]

Does the fate of Muslims in that area really matter to us? Is the fate of peace and democracy in Myanmar really important to the West? Or can everything be sacrificed to the needs of the economic and international balance of the moment?

The misinterpretation, the oversight or the misunderstanding that deprive the West of the extraordinary opportunity to be in dialogue with that area, to be an active and positive part, are taking place on the path of transition of Myanmar led by Aung San Suu Kyi on her choice to act in her full role as a politician.

Aung San Suu Kyi also had to face this challenge, the one about the very nature of her mission. An almost impossible mission.

Alone, among the incomprehension of many.

This challenge is still open. It also depends on us to open a new chapter with her and with Myanmar. It is also a challenge for the West: to get out of ambiguity, to tell the truth about oneself, about one’s own economic and geopolitical interests, to live the loyalty to one’s democratic, cultural and spiritual roots in a concrete way.

Meeting the challenges of Myanmar today means to meet our own challenges: on democracy, sustainable development, migration, religious and ethnic pluralism. On politics, as the main way to solve today’s big problems. On the nature of power itself. George Orwell – the celebrated author of Animal Farm and 1984 – also wrote Burmese Days, based on his experience with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in the 1920s. A trilogy, they say in Burma. A biting satire on power and social injustice. Emma Larkin committed herself to Finding George Orwell in Burma, in search of the legacy of a country dominated by the control apparatus of the military dictatorship and by the silent and non-violent resistance to it. Burmese Days is sold by children on the street, at the foot of the Pagodas of Bagan, together with their drawings.

The power in Myanmar: a mirror for the world.

Even in Rakhine, the Western and Islamic worlds are positioned for the great challenge with China. Which arrives, with its gas and oil pipelines, south of Rakhine, at the port of Kyaukphyu, with a new geopolitical and commercial strategy.

The challenge that Aung San Suu Kyi has shown since the years of her life under arrest – freedom from fear – returns powerful and unavoidable. The West needs to work a lot more on this perspective.

The second challenge: the reconciliation and peace, the dialogue between ethnic groups and religions 

Among the first gestures of her government was the summoning, in May 2016, of the 2nd Panglong Peace Conference of the 21st century. After the first one - that of March 1947 - when her Father Aung San summoned and united all the ethnic groups of Burma in the common goal of independence from Great Britain.

A Conference to start and end the peace process, starting from the ceasefire up to the national reconciliation. In a Country made up of 135 recognised ethnic groups, some of which are organised in armed groups, in conflict with the Army, especially along the borders.

The conference, still in progress, with moments of negotiation and stalemate, is beginning to bear fruit.

Aung San Suu Kyi states that without reconciliation and peace there is not even a prospect for economic development. Everything is held: even the construction of a federal state of the Union of Myanmar, which respects the autonomies, is part of the construction of the path of peace.

The Panglong Conference is involving thousands of people, with negotiations with about twenty armed ethnic organisations. The biggest political theme is at stake, the main challenge of Myanmar: how to build the unity of diversity. Diversity of history, language, customs, interests that history has defined in so many different ways. The Republic of Myanmar is called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. In the name there is already the character. It embraces its national identity.

Democracy as the space of unity and the exercise of diversity: this is today's challenge, since everything has to be built, starting with the ceasefire.
And yet, in the streets of Yangon, of Mandalay, or in the rural villages that make up Burma, there is only one smile, and the colours of the earth, flowers, food and stories are the light of this Country.
It needs big changes, but the first one is really marked by reconciliation and peace.

Different religions have coexisted for centuries in Burma. In a district of Yangon I saw the Hindu Temple, the Buddhist Pagoda, the Islamic Mosque, the Jewish Synagogue, the Christian Church, even the Armenian Church, very dear to me.

The meetings of the dialogue between religions are multiplying. The majority is Buddhist, but there are Christians of various denominations, Muslims, Baha'is, Hindus. Two Religions for Peace Forums were held in Naypyidaw with the intervention of Aung San Suu Kyi, a third one is scheduled for November.

The country is growing together, even with the support of civil society and young people, to which the peaceful future of Burma will belong.

But the pitfalls are not lacking. In recent years, a Buddhist nationalist movement has arisen in Myanmar, the MA BA TA, led by the military-supported monk Ashin Wirathu, who preaches hatred against Muslims. Today Wirathu, on the run, is pursued by a government arrest warrant. Another passage from the confrontation of Aung San Suu Kyi with the military.

"Patience and commitment", says Aung San Suu Kyi. She knows how complex it is to build a nation, and how much "time and perseverance" are needed.

National reconciliation also arises from reconciliation among people.

Just these days saw the gesture of Aung San Suu Kyi that has become symbolic for the whole country.

On the occasion of the death of Brigadier General Thein Naing, son-in-law of the eighth daughter of Than Shwe, a long military leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi sent a hand-written letter of sincere condolences to Than Shwe, responsible for her imprisonment. "I pray for the peace of those who have left, for you and your family". The answer posted on Facebook was: "Thank you very much".
Life and politics are so intertwined in Myanmar. Only sincere words, such as silences, can represent them.

The third challenge: the transition towards the democracy, the amendment of the Constitution, the political elections of 2020

When I first met her, in 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke a key word in conversation several times: change.
She was referring above all to the amendment of the Constitution.

Launched by the military in 2008, it collects, in a heavy volume like a code, all the rules that assign political power to the military and prevent her, leader of the NLD, from exercising the role that the electorate would be ready to assign her. As is well known, her family condition, of being married to a foreigner, who died in 1999, and of a mother of Anglo-Saxon sons, does not allow her to take on, according to the current Constitution, the highest institutional responsibility.

The Constitution is the backbone of a Country, the one still in force in Myanmar is not democratic.
"It is one of the most rigid in the world", has recently said Aung San Suu Kyi.

The amendment of the Constitution means to assign the Army a role of service to the Country, not a political one; to build the federal structure of the state; to recognise all freedoms; to describe a state of law; to fight corruption.

A decisive task for a Country that has just emerged from dictatorship and, first, from British colonialism. The reference to the rule of law is constant in Aung San Suu Kyi.

Recently, on the anniversary of the death of U Ko Ni, Aung San Suu Kyi has announced that a Committee would be set up in Parliament to examine the amendments to change the Constitution. The parliamentary military discussed, but in the end the work started. Perhaps some small change is being born. Aung San Suu Kyi is sowing, the harvest will come.

In the government of the country, at all levels, and in Parliament, the problem of forming a new ruling class is open in the whole country. With the 2015 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi brought to the Parliament the NLD candidates who for the first time faced the challenges within the institutions. Many of them had been in prison for a long time, few of them had been abroad.

The political elections of 2020 will mark another step in the political history of Myanmar. Another step in the consolidation of the democratic dialectic between the different political forces, in the growth of civil society and its organizations, in the generational transition. The society of Burma is changing in these years, the next election will see the people even more aware of their role in the choices for their own future.
The political scene is evolving as well. New parties are forming, as is natural in a rising democracy. Some supported by the military. The NLD is facing a new phase, with the aim of once again winning the elections. A new government, under the leadership of the NLD, is in the expectation of those hoping for a positive and peaceful evolution of politics in Myanmar at this stage. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and the President of the Republic U Win Myint, of the NLD, will be candidates for the next political elections.

What is certain is that nobody wants a return backwards. The healing of the nation, with dialogue, with unity, with peace has just begun. The political elections of 2020 are the real, next challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar.

At the center of political life in Myanmar, today as yesterday, there is the relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military. It has always been the crux. And it is the ground on which this transition phase is taking place, which is the peaceful way to the definitive exit of Burma from the military protection.
The word transition is to outline what has begun but is not yet accomplished. Fifty years after a severe military regime, the bank of the old regime has been left behind and democracy is fully sailing towards the other shore.
This sailing is the responsibility of everyone, including the military. It takes place under the guidance of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has chosen non-violence, dialogue, compromise, from time to time, to allow for possible change.
A perpetual confrontation, after all another resistance. It is democracy, not only as an end but also as a method.

A difficult match, that of Aung San Suu Kyi with the military. But as she was not a prisoner of their scheme when she was under arrest, so now she is also building this phase, being the point of reference for everyone, including the military. She is the axis around which the transition rotates, she has the rudder in her hand. Although many levers of power continue to be in the hands of others.

The fourth challenge: the economy, growth, overcoming poverty

Whenever she could, Aung San Suu Kyi travelled around the country, and she does so frequently today. She knows her people, their needs, their dreams: water, roads, electricity, education, health. "These are their basic dreams, how modest they are. Perhaps they are too simple to attract the interests of the world, but they are of tremendous importance to them, to us”.[9]
Their dream is her dream. From that stemmed the economic policy of a government that in recent years has improved the situation of roads, transport, use of electricity, social conditions.
But much still remains to be done, even in attracting foreign investments. Myanmar is in Asia, with a long border with China. Aung San Suu Kyi has placed her country there, in her natural area, intensifying relations, as well as with China, with the ASEAN countries, with Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, all of them present in Myanmar, even with large investments.
China is a natural partner, even with the recent Belt and Road Initiative, which Myanmar takes part in.

I remember a speech a few years ago by Aung San Suu Kyi, just back from her first trip to China: our development will not be like that of other neighboring countries, it will be oriented to what is good for our people. It is a clear message: environment, sustainability and social security are priority goals. The game is open, to foreign investors she says: do not just come and do business.

The great reform of agriculture, which affects 75% of the population, tourism, industry, mines are fundamental chapters of the country's economy, to be restarted after the immobility of recent decades, in general impoverishment.
The growth forecast is now at 6%, in a country that is twice and a half Italy, with 55 million inhabitants. With 32.2% below the poverty line, with 69 years of life expectancy for women and 64 for men. If you look at it, women are those very active in the Country.
Crucial is the change in the Public Administration, an essential tool of economic development. A committee was set up, chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi, to set up a database, still absent, in Myanmar.

There are great problems which are still open, such as the Myitstone dam project that China would like to achieve, to its advantage. In a vibrant message, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon defended the Irrawaddy Mother, the river that crosses the country and gives it life.[10]

Another difficult challenge for Aung San Suu Kyi, called for another necessary mediation.
Burma is running. Some stages of growth may be skipped. The progress of new technologies is going through every area and every social class, young people are the great engine of the future. They are 45% of the population. School, university, research, technical training, health are essential for the Burmese people today. Knowledge is the first goal, together with welfare, and the promotion of the life of young people, threatened by drugs.

Economic challenge, social challenge, challenge of civil coexistence, democratic challenge: they are one thing for Myanmar today and for Aung San Suu Kyi. A huge amount of problems, yet it is the hope of a nation that moves all these things and supports them. It is the dream of Aung San Suu Kyi, stronger than any difficulty, any loss, any suffering.

The fifth challenge: Myanmar, between Asia and Europe, for a new dialogue with the West 

Today a woman is at the head of Myanmar. As sometimes happens in Asia, and increasingly in the rest of the world. There is a Burmese woman, who belongs to her Country, to her history, to her soul in such a peculiar way.
There is a woman who grew up in India, who studied at Oxford, who worked at the UN in New York, who studied in Japan, who lived in Nepal. For years away, deprived of freedom, and then returned to the world.
A fighter.
Where will she lead Myanmar to? This country between China and India, one of the largest in ASEAN, so close to China, with stable ties with Japan, Australia and Russia? With cultural ties so profound with Europe and with Italy, which have always been intense with Great Britain and the United States?
Who will talk with Aung San Suu Kyi, in the West, with sincerity and open-mindedness?
I was there and experienced firsthand the days of Pope Francis' visit, in November 2017. A very intense spiritual dialogue, a journey that passes through the countries of the world with the power of spirituality, non-violence, pluralism and dialogue between ethnic groups and religions, of pacification and national reconciliation.

This is today the bulwark of defence against violence, military and economic interests, religious fundamentalisms. This is the frontier of Aung San Suu Kyi today, as always in solitude.

There are people who indicate new perspectives in the world. With a great inner strength and with clarity, like Pope Francis. Not by chance in the sights of the powerful.
And like Aung San Suu Kyi, who today, like yesterday, faces enormous challenges with the same consistency and with the same courage.
A new dialogue with Europe and the West would be very useful for Myanmar, both on the economic side and on the side of politics and democracy. Far beyond the perimeter of the Nobel Prize for Human Rights awarded to the leader who is now leading Myanmar. Institutional and private subjects are present, in the dialogue with Myanmar, the European Union has its Embassy in Yangon.
But politics, state diplomacy and that of international organisations, and the civil diplomacy of associations, universities and citizens are required.
In the new time of Myanmar, culture, law, science, democracy, spirituality that move in Europe cannot be absent.
And here we cannot lose the beauty of Burma, its spirituality, its humanity. Burma is a complex nation, Europe knows the complexity, we have a lot to learn from each other. The new time in Burma, the new time in Asia is also the new time for a watchful and united Europe, the gentle force that the world longs for.[11]

What will Europe bring to Asia, what will Asia bring to Europe?

The journey with Myanmar allows us to enter this future. To enter the century of Asia.

A spiritual politics

The Economic Times recently wrote about Aung San Suu Kyi: “You can criticise her because it is now fashionable to do so, but the truth is that Suu Kyi is a spiritual politician, a breed so rare we no longer know how to recognise it.”[12]

Yes, the West is struggling to recognise it.
And yet it seems to me that this is the strongest dimension of her political role: spirituality.
Aung San Suu Kyi has a profound spiritual experience. With her Buddhist culture, with her roots that branch out into the family, up to the Christian grandfather who every morning as a child would make her read a page of the Bible. Her father, Aung San, had had an Italian, Salvatore Cioffi, as his teacher of Buddhism when he was a boy. He was called Lokanatha. He had a Jesuit brother.

I have always thought that the moral authority of Aung San Suu Kyi comes from her deep inner freedom, nurtured by her spirituality, by the awareness supported by daily meditation. Her reflection on Gandhi, her connection with the Velvet Revolution by Vaclav Havel, with Nelson Mandela and with Desmond Tutu are well known.

Politics as a spiritual revolution is the very appropriate title that the Rector of the University of Bologna Ivano Dionigi chose for the publication of the lectio magistralis by Aung San Suu Kyi held at his University on 30 October 2013.

I always thought that the political authority you express comes from the authority of those who suffer, as the theologian Johann Baptist Metz says.[13] A moral authority that bases the same argument on politics and democracy.

Without respect for this moral authority of suffering, democracy becomes fragile and declines.

This is why Myanmar, and Aung San Suu Kyi, are today a sign of contradiction. They tell the world the problem of truth, while the world uses lies more easily, even in information.

The issue of the silence of Aung San Suu Kyi on the Rakhine affair, so stirred by the media, is all here: when can the word speak of suffering? And how? What is the language of politics that faces suffering?
Silence is sometimes the most eloquent word of a responsible speech.
A policy as pragmatic as Aung San Suu Kyi, always concrete, attentive at all times, must have a great moral and spiritual hold that sustains her days and her life. Those who do not succumb to arduous trials, those who continue to look to the future, with a long-term vision, must have a great spiritual hold within themselves. She is aware that others will come after her, others will reap the fruits of her sowing.
Meanwhile her life, here and now, is the greatest gift she can give to her people, and to the world.

Bonhoeffer says:

"It may be that tomorrow dawns on the last day;
only then, not before,
we will stop with pleasure
to work for a better future.”
I envisage Aung San Suu Kyi in that way: always at work, in her inner silence. With her kindness, her irony, her spontaneity, her direct and intense gaze that loses nothing of what is entrusted to her.
I envisage the future of Europe in that way: in dialogue with her. Attentive to the spiritual reasons that change history and politics, no less than economic and military ones.
"It is better to lose the reputation than charity", thus stated Catherine of Siena, a spiritual political woman of the 1300s.
The prophecy, between the West and the East, continues. Especially the female prophecy.

Italian bibliography

  1. Aung San Suu Kyi, Libera dalla paura, Sperling & Kupfer Editori, 1996;
  2. Aung San Suu Kyi, La mia Birmania, TEA, 2012;
  3. Aung San Suu Kyi, Lettere dalla mia Birmania, Sperling & Kupfer Editori, 2007;
  4. Cecilia Brighi, Le sfide di Aung San Suu Kyi per la nuova Birmania, eurilink, 2016;
  5. Win Tin e Sophie Malibeaux, Una vita da dissidente, Obarrao Edizioni, 2011;
  6. Thant Myint-U, Myanmar. Dove la Cina incontra l’India, add editore, 2015;
  7. Massimo Morello, Nella Siria d’Asia. Reportage dal misterioso Rakhine, in Il Foglio, 10 febbraio 2019;
  8. Francesco Montessoro, Di Padre in Figlia. Leadership femminili in Asia, in Rivista di Politica, 03/2015, Rubbettino Editore;
  9. George Orwell, Giorni in Birmania, Oscar Mondadori, 2006;
  10. Emma Larkin, Sulle tracce di George Orwell in Birmania, add editore, 2005;
  11. Andrea Castronovo, La primavera birmana: analisi della transizione politica in Myanmar, Tesi di Laurea all’Università degli Studi di Pavia, Corso di Laurea in Scienze Politiche e delle Relazioni Internazionali, anno accademico 2015-2016;
  12. Luciano Larivera S.I., L’alba democratica del Myanmar, in La Civiltà Cattolica, n. 3900, 15 dicembre 2012, pag. 619;
  13. Benoît Vermander S.I., La nascita di una teologia pan-asiatica, in La Civiltà Cattolica, n. 4010, 15 luglio – 5-19 agosto 2017, pag. 114;
  14. Antonio Spadaro S.I., Diplomazia e profezia. Papa Francesco in Myanmar e in Bangladesh, in La Civiltà Cattolica, n. 4020, pag. 575;
  15. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Birmania: la signora e i generali, in Scelte difficili, Sperling & Kupfer Editori, 2014, pag. 131-163;
  16. Wah Wah Htay, Wai Nu Kyi, Giordano Merlicco, Mappa etnogastronomica del Myanmar, in Motta, Food and Culture: History, society communication, Nuova Cultura, Roma, 2017, vol. II, pp. 273-87;
  17. Albertina Soliani, Tutto si muove, tutto si tiene. Vita e politica. Quasi un bilancio per la generazione che viene, Ed. Diabasis, 2013.

Albertina Soliani – Resumé

She is the President of the Alcide Cervi Institute in Italy, for the memory of the Resistance.

She was a Member of the Parliament for the Ulivo and the Democratic Party, in the Senate of the Republic, from 2001 to 2013.

She was a member of the Parliamentary Commissions of Culture and Education, Health, Industry, Environment, Agriculture and European politics. She was a member of the Committee of inquiry on the national public health service and of the Parliamentary Commission of Childhood.

She was a member of the European Council.

From 2008 to 2013 she was the President of the Parliamentary Friends of Burma Association.

She supports the Italy Myanmar Friendship Association Giuseppe Malpeli.

She was Undersecretary of Public Education in the 1st Prodi Government from 1996 to 1998.

Graduated in Pedagogy at the Catholic University of Sacred Heart in Milan, she was a teacher and headmistress.

She promoted social and association activities for the workers’ education, patients’ right, the interreligious dialogue. She is the Peace Ambassador for Universal Peace Federation (UPF), and she is a promoter of the Parliamentary Union for Peace of UPF.

She participated in woman’s movements, in 1995 she was part of the Italian delegation to the IV World Conference of Women organised by the UN in Beijing.

She lives in Parma (Italy).

Translated into English by Lara Marchesi

August 2019


[1]      Foreword by di Michael Aris to Aung San Suu Kyi’s book, Free from Fear, Sperling & Kupfer Editori, 1996

[2]    Francesco Montessoro, Di Padre in Figlia. Leadership femminili in Asia, in Rivista di Politica, 03/2015, Rubbettino Editore

[3]    Speech of the Cardinal Charles Bo

[4]      Aung San Suu Kyi, La mia Birmania, ed. TEA, 2012, page 151

[5]      Aung San Suu Kyi, Speech of the 25th anniversary of 8-8-’88, Yangon, 8-8-2013

[6]      Aung San Suu Kyi, Lecture on Challenges of Transition, at Charles University, Prague, 3 June 2019

[7]      Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Resistenza e resa, San Paolo, 1988, page 64

[8]    Massimo Morello, Nella Siria d’Asia. Reportage dal misterioso Rakhine, in Il Foglio, 10 February 2019

[9]      Aung San Suu Kyi, Lecture on Challenges of Transition, at Charles University, Prague, 3 June 2019

[10]   Cardinal Charles Bo, Message, L’Osservatore Romano, 1 February 2019

[11]  Tommaso Padoa Schioppa, Europa, forza gentile, Il Mulino, 2001

[12]  Abhijit Dutta, in The Economic Times, 25 November 2018

[13]   Johann Baptis Metz, Sul concetto della nuova teologia politica. 1967-1997, Ed. Queriniana, 1998, page 211

Journal of Political Studies

San Pio V Institute – Rome

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