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Daw Suu's Letter from Burma (05/11/

Mainichi Daily News, Monday, May 11, 1998

"Czechs and Us"

Letter from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi

Eight years ago, about this time of high summer, I had a conversation with
some of my "minders" (I was under house arrest then) about the symbols that
various political parties had chosen for the elections that were to take
place soon.  It had been decided by the powers that be that the people of
Burma were not yet sophisticated enough to vote for parties by name and that
the process would be simplified if each party were represented by a symbol.
There were hats and musical instruments and household objects, including a
clock that showed 9 o'clock.  Why 9, people mused:  was it because that was
the lucky number for the military regime?  In that event, the clock became
the symbol of the party of the democratically elected first prime minister
of independent Burma, while the National Unity Party (NUP), which supported
the junta, was represented by a stalk of rice paddy (canny choice, that one,
supposed to attract members of Burma's large agricultural community; but the
farmers and peasants of Burma were even cannier, the NUP won only 10 out of
over 470 parliamentary seats).
	"It would be very appropriate if the symbol for the National League for
Democracy (NLD) were a locked prison door," I remarked.
	"Oh no, that would be most inauspicious," said one of the nicer minders, in
all seriousness.
	"But everybody would know that such a symbol could only represent the NLD
and they would not mistakenly vote for another party," I explained.
	The minders were at a loss for words for a few moments, then they directed
the conversation to more innocuous symbols.  Although it was not a locked
prison door, the symbol that fell to the lot of the NLD could not have been
better:  It was a /khamauk/, a wide, conical bamboo hat, the kind worn by
peasants and other outdoor laborers throughout much of South and Southeast
Asia.  I heard on a BBC news program a short time before the elections that
the portents were good for the NLD, because at a football match up in the
Sagaing division the spectators had turned up /en force/ wearing khamauks.
	All that was eight years ago, but I recalled vividly that conversation
about symbols recently when reading a collection of writings by a Czech
dissident writer of the 1970s and 1980s.  These /feuilletons/ had originally
been brought out by the samizdat Padlock Editions, which reminded me of my
whimsy about locked prison doors.  In "A Cup of Coffee with My
Interrogator," Ludvik Vaculik described some of his experiences with members
of the Czech secret police and used the expression, "my lieutenant colonel"
to refer to the officer who habitually interrogated him.  I could not
suppress a reminiscent smile as I thought of the references I too had made
at one time to "my lieutenant colonel."  He had started out as a major and
is now a full colonel, but is sadly no longer "ours" because he no longer
seems to be directly connected with the activities of the NLD.  We
understand that the subjects of his attention these days are of a much more
passive nature.  Does he find the change restful, I wonder, or does he miss
the hurly burly of life with dissidents just a little?
	Dissident minds often run along similar tracks because their encounters
with authority are often of a similar nature.  Let me reiterate that my
preferred definition of "dissident" is "one who disagrees with the aims and
procedures of the government."  It is fascinating for us to read about the
experiences of others who have struggled against authoritarian regimes, to
engage in a stimulating mental comparing of notes.  I must confess to a
particular affinity for the writings of Czech dissidents (or perhaps one
should say ex-dissidents, except that I think perhaps some of them will be
dissidents for life, their intellectual combativeness ever ready to question
the ways of authority, whosoever that may be).
	My awareness of Czechoslovakia started as a child in the good old days of
Burmese democracy, which were the bad old days of communism in
Czechoslovakia.  I was taken to an exhibition where there was a variety of
cumbersome agriculture machinery and quantities of cut glass.  It was a
baffling introduction to the production policy of a socialist state.  There
must have been other exhibits, but my memory has retained only the farm
equipment, which included a stubby tractor, painted flamingo-tangerine,
displayed in state in the middle of a large marquee; sawdust on the ground;
ranks of chandeliers (who in Burma would have bought them?  Were they
presented to members of the government?); and an antiseptic smell which I
could not identify.  I cannot pretend that the impression I gained of
Czechoslovakia from that exhibition was entirely favorable, but the point
was that an impression had been made.
	It is a considerable leap from tractors and chandeliers to the good
soldiers Svejk and Charter 77.  A sketchy knowledge of Masaryk and 1968 and
articles about Czech food in gourmet magazines constituted little bridges
here and there along the years, but it was still a leap.  Once arrived at
Charter 77, however, I was on what was soon to become familiar ground.
Cerny's declaration that "there is nothing illegal or anti-state in the idea
of a voluntary movement of citizens to defend human rights and civil
liberties" could have been the slogan of the movement for democracy in
Burma.  The principled stand of the intellectuals of Czechoslovakia inspired
me and the news of the quick, bloodless victory of their velvet revolution
delighted me during the days of my house arrest.  As the similarities
between us underlined the tedious sameness of authoritarian regimes, the
differences showed that as far as repressiveness, there were varying grades.
The military regime of Burma is certainly one of those which could make a
reasonable bid for grade A.  Reading the letters of Vaclav Havel to his
wife, Olga, I was as much struck by his philosophical and literary talents
as by the fact that he was allowed to write them at all.  True, the number
of pages he could write were limited, his letters were censored so
rigorously he had exercise considerable ingenuity to convey his thoughts to
the world outside, an that there were times when he was deprived of his
letter rights.  But still, he could write letters to his wife from prison!
How many people in the world realize that political prisoners in Burma are
not allowed reading or writing material of any kind and that the only way
they can communicate with their families, if they are not allowed visiting
rights, is by smuggling out clandestine messages which often cost them a
considerable sum in the way of bribes?
	There are in the prisons of Burma now men and women of high intellectual
and moral fiber, writers and journalists whom the Chartists would, I am
sure, recognize as their peers.  In particular, I would like to mention U
Win Tin, a member of the Central Executive Committee of the NLD, who is
serving his third consecutive term in Insein Jail.  He is in his 70s and in
ill health but indomitable.  We understand that his last sentence, imposed
last year within months of the conclusion of his second term, was in
connection with a handwritten volume that the prisoner had managed to bring
out to commemorate a political event.  One day I hope that volume may be
published throughout the world in many languages including, of course, Czech.