U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Burma today for her historic state visit, and she walks a dangerous tightrope. Though the military dictatorship that ruled the country for nearly fifty years was replaced last year in the election of Thein Sein as president, Sein’s roots are embedded in that dictatorship. While he has shown some movement away from those roots, it is still too soon to tell where his loyalties lie. By trusting the new government too soon, Clinton could commit the US to siding with a government that turns out to be repressive. By moving too slowly and being overly suspicious, she could lose the opportunity to fan Burma’s “flickers of progress” into flames of freedom. Key to her success or failure will be her attunement to Burma’s spiritual foundations and their connection to liberty.
Aung San Suu Kyi can be Clinton’s guide. Suu Kyi, both a shrewd politician and a spiritual leader, understands in her bones the interrelationship between Burma’s complex political culture and its deep spiritual roots. She understands the mind of the West as well, and can translate Burma’s culture to Westerners. Through her childhood as daughter of Burma’s independence leader Aung San, then studying and marrying in England where she complemented her Buddhist religion with Western philosophy and religion, Suu Kyi learned to bridge East and West. Upon her return to Burma in 1988, her rise to popularity as leader of the National League for Democracy, and her subsequent imprisonment by the dictatorship, she also learned to make her spirituality practical. It is Suu Kyi’s own deep spirituality that sustained her through her long house arrest, 15 of the past 21 years. She knows that lasting change in Burma needs to be built on a spiritual foundation. In the BBC Reith Lectures delivered last summer, Suu Kyi contrasted the NLD with typical opposition parties:
We were not in the business of merely replacing one government with another, which could be considered the job of an opposition party. Nor were we simply agitating for particular changes in the system as activists might be expected to do.
She drew the connection between inner transformation and outer work for change:
[A]n inner sense of freedom can reinforce a practical drive for the more fundamental freedoms in the form of human rights and rule of law. Buddhism teaches that the ultimate liberation is liberation from all desire. . .[W]hen the Buddhist monks of Burma went on a Metta – that is loving kindness – march in 2007, they were protesting against the sudden steep rise in the price of fuel that had led to a devastating rise in food prices. They were using the spiritual authority to move for the basic right of the people to affordable food.
It is partly because Suu Kyi was able to articulate the connection between spirituality and freedom that she won the hearts of the Burmese people.
President Obama was wise to phone Aung San Suu Kyi last month to get her perspective on the new government before he decided to send Clinton on her state visit. Through Suu Kyi’s assessment that she could “work with” the new government, based on its release of some political prisoners and its political and economic reforms, Obama chose cautious optimism. Clinton needs to understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s (and her NLD’s) perspective on change. She needs to stay attuned to what it will take for deep and lasting change to come to Burma, and to the spiritual foundations of that change.
If Clinton can do that, she will be on the side of the angels. She will promote democracy in Burma and signal to the world that the U.S. cares about cultural sensitivity and wants to take a stand for human rights. She will respond to Suu Kyi’s exhortation to promote more justice in the world:
[I]t is not just that you’re doing something for Burma when you help us in our democracy movement. I think you are helping the whole world to have greater access to fairness, to justice, to security, to freedom. I would like people to think of it like that – not just that we’re helping this particular country or that particular country but as promoting more security, more freedom and more justice in this world.