My little sister is graced with courage and compassion, can write more eloquently than I ever could, and has an insatiable desire for adventure. I remember as a kid watching her learn to ride a bike before I did, and later once seeing her and my dad take on the biggest roller coasters while I kept two feet on the ground. That, in essence, is the difference between us. I build myself up step by step while she just shoots for the moon and sees where she lands. She is coming to St Andrews next fall, but decided to take a gap year beforehand. This is uncommon in the US, and she was originally going to study natural medicine in Nepal. But after uncharacteristically having doubts about going, she settled on Nepal’s Eastern Asia neighbor, Myanmar. Little did she know that she was walking into a country being torn apart by what the United Nations has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
Myanmar, or Burma, has a special place in our family’s history. My grandfather, an accountant, served over fifty years in the Territorial Army, as well as fifteen years of keeping the books for Prospect Burma, a charity dedicated to getting Burmese students the best education possible. He left quite a legacy of public service, one that I hope to emulate in my own lifetime. One of his most prized possessions was a photograph of himself with Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto Burmese leader and modern-day icon for democracy and non-violent change. I can only imagine my grandfather’s horror in seeing Suu Kyi being exposed as a false prophet, a politician who has prioritized her own position over those she is charged with protecting.
Aung San Suu Kyi came to global admiration as a champion of democracy. She won the 1990 election in a landslide, only to be kept under house arrest for fifteen years after the military denied her the presidency. Her commitment to nonviolence earned her the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, the prize money of which she invested back into the betterment of her Burmese people. She has drawn parallels to Gandhi, but like Gandhi (who was prejudiced against black people), she has shown a pattern of discrimination against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. The Burmese military has been systematically burning homes, raping, plundering, and killing the Rohingya population, and those who survive these traumas have created a refugee crisis in Bangladesh. While Suu Kyi has not publicly supported this violence, her silence has spoken loudly enough. Archbishop Desmond Tutu states: “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
Some may argue that at best, she would not be able to curb the military’s behavior even if she did speak out, and at worst, could incite a coup. But there is always a choice. Muhammad Yunus has suggested that if she is in fact powerless, she should resign. But Suu Kyi is going nowhere. That is because at the end of the day, she is a politician, not the hero that everyone decided she should be.
Myanmar may seem a few worlds away, but it became a whole lot closer for me now that my sister is spending her gap year there. She is without her phone, and aside from infrequent communication, I am unsure of where she is most of the time. A constant anxiety for her safety hangs over my family. From talking to her, it seems like most of the time she is either in a Buddhist monastery or a Buddhist host family, which in the grand scheme of things are very safe places to be. The anxiety I feel for my sister, however, must be no different for someone whose sister is still in the Rakhine state and in real danger of unthinkable violence. This is the real issue at hand. Will we take the incredible education we receive at St Andrews and use it to infuse some compassion into our communities? Will my sister take advantage of visiting Myanmar to educate and generate discussion about what is actually going on? Will democratically-elected leaders such as Suu Kyi lead like an activist, not a politician? The world is big, and life is short, so we owe it to ourselves to do whatever we can to make it better than we found it.
Myanmar holds a complex place in my heart. I admire how far it has come as a nation, respect its rich history and culture, and feel connected to any success and failures that it goes through. But I am terrified of it. Terrified first and foremost for my sister, whose fearlessness would never allow her to realize what a perilous moment in Myanmar’s history she has walked into. I am terrified for the Rohingya population, who face not only persecution, but losing their homes and their heritage. And finally, I fear for Suu Kyi, who may never summon the strength to stand up to her army at the cost of a genocide. She may have been built up by Western media as a champion for an idealistic Burmese state, but it does not take a Nobel Peace Prize winner to have compassion and courage.