Aung San Suu Kyi, A De Gaulle Moment For Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi attending a parliamentary session in Naypyidaw on March 29
Aung San Suu Kyi attending a parliamentary session in Naypyidaw on March 29
Bruno Philip


YANGON â€" Good luck Aung San Suu Kyi! The hardest part still lies ahead. Such a message might sound exaggerated, even inappropriate, when you think that this woman spent 15 years under house arrest, having always shown tremendous determination against the junta's generals.

Her fight has indeed paid off at last, as she has gained the paradoxical support of the military, who finally and rather unexpectedly decided to let Myanmar move forward on the path towards unprecedented political reforms. But it's also true that this is the moment that new roadblocks might start to appear after this internationally renowned figure came to power on April 1.

Suu Kyi, known as "The Lady," is surrounded by an aura that virtually no other world leader has, and the Burmese people's expectations are high. Perhaps too high. What is happening in Myanmar right now is reminiscent of the "Obamania" that hit the United States after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election. And as such, it risks provoking its own share of disillusions and frustrations.

Even though she could not become president herself â€" the Constitution barred her because her children are British citizens â€" Suu Kyi will still lead the government. The new president, Htin Kyaw, is one of her close friends and is expected to follow her orders.

Initially, the Lady was supposed to act as Minister for Foreign Affairs, Education, Electricity and Energy, as well as leading the President's Office. A portfolio that amounted to a "Super Ministry" more powerful than the rest, thus giving her a prime minister-like role. Finally, on April 4, she gave up Energy and Education, but took on the job as the president's spokeswoman.

Could the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner be losing touch with the real world? At 70, how will she physically and psychologically manage to deal with so many important issues and be up to the challenge facing one of Asia's poorest countries, marred by more than half-a-century of dictatorship and endless internal wars?

Those close to her say that it'll take an iron lady to put her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in order. Many among her opponents and some of her disciples highlight Suu Kyi's autocratic temperament.

Like other Asian women of power, all heiresses or widows of murdered charismatic leaders, she hasn't prepared her legacy, nor has she favored the emergence inside her party of future leaders capable of taking up the torch.

It was nearly 28 years ago that Burmese troops fired their machine guns on the protesters in Yangon, ultimately propelling Aung San Suu Kyi to the helm of a pro-democracy movement. She was of course her father's daughter. General Aung San, the tutelary figure of the Burmese independence movement, was killed in his office in July 1947 by a commando group bankrolled by one of his rivals. That was a few months before the British occupier's Union Jack ceased to wave above Myanmar.

Nobody can deny that the Lady has gained a moral rigor and an acute sense of her country's destiny. One of her fellow students at Oxford, Anne Pasternak Slater, a niece of Boris Pasternak (who wrote the 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago), describes her as a person of "touching naivety and genuine innocence," who nonetheless has an "uptight" personality.

Family portrait with Suu Kyi (in white) taken shortly before her father's assassination in 1947 â€" Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1990, after her first liberation, she had become more mature, and was under no illusion regarding the path ahead of her, anticipating with lucidity how hard the fight would be. "It's rather normal for authoritarian regimes to be uncompromising for long periods of time," she admitted at the time in a Thai newspaper, Nation. "You just need to keep trying harder."

Without a doubt, she has always been remarkably perseverant. But the task ahead of her remains formidable. She'll need to negotiate with the ethnic guerrilla groups that are still fighting against the Burmese army. She'll have to find common ground with the Chinese, formerly allied to the junta, and who shamelessly covet her country's natural resources.

She'll also have to continue economic reforms in a corrupted business environment in which skirting the law for one's personal gain is accepted practice. There's also the drug and jade trafficking, and the fight against poverty, in a country where 70% of the population are farmers, the vast majority of whom still use wood to cook.

Rising inter-religious conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims is also a major threat to stability. And last but not least, Suu Kyi will need to define a modus vivendi with an almighty military that still controls the most important ministries: defense, interior and borders.

In the 1990s, answering an American congressman who asked about her vision for Myanmar, should she ever rise to power, she said: "It isn't my vision. I'll be happy to be a leader with symbolic power. I'm not Myanmar."

After all this time, everything leads us to believe that as years went by, Aung San Suu Kyi developed with her country and her people the same sort of relationship that Charles De Gaulle had with France and the French. The way she's led her party, and the way she could lead "her" government, acting as as an unbendable teacher, unquestioned by lawmakers or partners who fear and worship her at the same time, is a strength that could become a weakness. In the meantime, she's become the incarnation of Myanmar. That may actually make the challenge even harder.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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