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The lady's not for turning

Doubts about Aung San Suu Kyi's political relevance can be dismissed. She remains the symbol of defi

Aung San Suu Kyi rarely receives visitors. Apart from the regular visits by her doctor and Special Branch police officers, there is only the occasional United Nations envoy, and on a rainy day in September 2007, hundreds of Buddhist monks who walked to her house chanting prayers in her honour before leading the biggest uprising in Burma since 1988.

Suu Kyi’s latest visitor came uninvited and, unwittingly, cast her from seclusion back into the center of Burma’s long drawn out political drama. An American called John William Yettaw swam across Inya Lake in Rangoon, spending two days as an unwelcome house guest with Suu Kyi. Authorities arrested Yettaw on his return journey on May 6. This bizarre incident became the pretext for the ruling military government to file charges against Suu Kyi for breaching conditions of her house arrest order, in force since 2003.

On May 14 Burmese authorities arrested the pro-democracy leader and 1991 Nobel Peace prize winner, along with her two maids. They are currently detaining the three in Rangoon’s squalid Insein prison. On May 18, she went on trial and faces a potential prison term of three to five years, even though many Burmese expected her house arrest to be extended for another year anyway. International condemnation was immediate and widespread, including from some of Burma’s southeast Asian neighbors and usual protectors.

Burmese authorities last detained Suu Kyi in Insein Prison in May 2003, after a pro-government mob attacked her motorcade in Depayin in upper Burma. Scores of Suu Kyi’s supporters were killed in what was clearly a ham-fisted attempt to murder her. After several weeks in Insein prison, authorities sent Su Kyi to her Rangoon home where she has remained in isolation for the last six years.

Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been eviscerated by government repression --offices closed, members forced to resign, many thrown in prison or forced into exile, only the old leaders, the ”uncles” allowed to speak to the outside world. Burma’s prisons hold more than 2,100 political activists, a cross section of society incarcerated as an example to deter broader dissent.

The military government continues to deny the NLD freedom to function as a normal opposition. Widespread scepticism is the attitude towards elections that are scheduled for 2010 as part of a tightly scripted sham political process - the generals’ ”Road Map to Disciplined Democracy.” But what role does ‘The Lady’, as she is popularly referred to, have in this sham process of reform designed to ensure future military rule with a civilian veil?

The question of Aung San Suu Kyi’s relevance to Burma’s political future has been clearly answered by the military government’s latest move. If the generals did not think she still embodied a challenge to their rule, they would have released her long ago. Suu Kyi’s remains the symbol of defiance to a rotten system of military rule.

The generals aren’t the only ones impatient with her principles. Lately, some diplomats, aid workers and journalists have criticized Su Kyi’s ”hard-line” approach and lack of compromise in dealing with the generals, and bemoan her support of Western sanctions. But sanctions are hardly to blame for the paranoia and xenophobia of Burma’s generals and socio-economic atrophy. Burma’s dire poverty is a direct result of four decades of military rule, political instability, and economic mismanagement. It cannot be blamed on a woman held in isolation for 14 of the past 20 years.

Su Kyi’s unflinching commitment to peaceful change and rights for all in Burma explains her popularity inside and outside the country and fuels the military’s enmity against her. The generals have proved once again Suu Kyi’s pivotal personification of freedom in Burma. The military government can go through the motions of legal proceedings, but it only shows their mendacity, and boosts her popularity. Burma’s rulers should set her free, and start learning from her example.

David Scott Mathieson is the Burma Researcher for Human Rights Watch

David Scott Mathieson is Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch, based in Thailand.
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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.