Aung San Suu Kyi’s political philosophy is a serious attempt to act from Buddhist principles. under her leadership, the goal of the democracy movement has not been defeating military but restoring harmony and she has refused to endorse unethical means to achieve her political ends. Part 2 of 2: read Part 1
Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhism
In her political philosophy Suu Kyi acknowledges her debts to two precursors: her father and Mahatma Gandhi. But behind these influences is a serious attempt to act from Buddhist principles. As a result she has been able to maintain a consistent position that is based soundly on ethical values, and to exemplify those values in her own actions. It was through acting with Buddhist principles that she was able not only to focus the opposition movement, but to imbue it with her idealism.
‘The quintessential revolution’, she wrote, ‘is that of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in the mental attitudes which shape the course of a nation’s development. Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces that produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative.
Many of Suu Kyi’s speeches have been directed not to the government but to the Burmese people, themselves, for she regards democracy as an expression of the people’s ability to take collective responsibility rather than merely a way of distributing power. Suu Kyi saw Burma as a country ‘where intimidation and propaganda work in a duet of oppression, while the people, lapped in fear and distrust, learn to dissemble and keep silent.’
She summed up a sophisticated analysis of this situation in a single sentence: ‘It is not power that corrupts but fear.’ The tyranny was the product of fear and it had sapped their strength. She encouraged them to relearn the habits of taking individual responsibility that were manifest in Burma’s past.
For Suu Kyi, the goal of the democracy movement was not to defeat the military but to restore harmony. Violence was, therefore, not an option for the protesters – but non-violence was not just another political method. The fundamental task was to ensure that any actions they took sprang from a skillful motivation. Even while troops were firing on demonstrators, Suu Kyi urged the crowd not to lose their affection for the army.
From a Buddhist perspective desirable ends cannot justify unethical means: ethical action is an end in itself. ‘Just continue to do what you believe is right,’ she told one rally. ‘Later the fruits of what you do will become apparent on their own. One’s responsibility is to do the right thing.’
Suu Kyi also saw the government’ violence as the product of fear. Without a popular mandate, its policies had to be imposed violently because: ‘the insecurity of life based on coercion translates into the need to crush all dissent.’ Using the central Buddhist tenet of true and false refuges, Suu Kyi argues that, by following materialistic and selfish aims, the government was pursuing false refuges that cannot provide any real security. She suggested that a true refuge is found in taking responsibility for one’s actions in the fullest sense and judging those actions in terms of their beneficial effects on others.
She also invoked the traditional Buddhist concept of the Just King, who seeks to manifest the qualities of generosity, ethical behaviour, selflessness and ‘non-opposition to the will of the people (which is often interpreted as an endorsement of democracy). ‘Rulers must observe the teaching of the Buddha. Central to these teachings are the concepts of truth, righteousness and loving-kindness. It is government based on these very qualities that the people of Burma are seeking … ‘
These might simply be fine sentiments, where it not for their rhetorical force in this context. Burma has been a Theravada Buddhist country for 2,000 years and Buddhism has affected every aspect of its traditional culture. Most men have spent time in the monastery when they were boys and often have further periods as monks in later life. As a Buddhist Suu Kyi is reviving native Burmese values that, she says, have lain dormant beneath military rule.
She has managed to translate traditional Buddhist concepts into the language of modern political struggle. The government often dismissed demands for democracy and human rights, calling them western notions for which Burmese people need have no regard. But Suu Kyi endorsed the need for human rights, which she views as an expression of Buddhist principles. ‘Buddhism places the greatest value on man who, alone of all beings, can gain Buddhahood.’
This synthesis of Buddhism and modern political concepts has allowed her to generalize the significance of the struggle. ‘The quest for democracy in Burma I the struggle of a people to live whole, meaningful lives as free and equal members of the world community. It is part of the unceasing human endeavour to prove that the spirit of man can transcend the flaws of his nature.’
Burma’s troubles extend much further than political persecution, and Suu Kyi’s Buddhist approach also sheds a broader light. She connects the country’s economic malaise with a myopia consequent on the government’s self-interest. ‘A narrowly-focused self interest that seeks to block out all considerations apparently irrelevant to one’s own well-being tends finally to block out what is, in fact, most relevant’. She argues that, lacking the discipline of accountability, the generals actions have been arbitrary and inconsistent. The result is that investors have lost confidence in the country’s economy and the Burmese have lost a sense of involvement in their fortunes. In this way, the generals have undermined the very conditions on which economic development depends.
It is true that Suu Kyi’s philosophy has not been tested by the realities of power. But by embodying her principles Suu Kyi has been able to maintain a moral stature that is the foundation of her political strength. When she first appeared on the political scene, one Burmese observer said: ‘We listened to her words and then to the words of the generals and we knew in our hearts who was the better person.’ Her idealism is extensive, but it is not extravagant. As she says, ‘If people and nations cultivated a generous spirit which welcomes the happiness of others as an enhancement to the happiness of the self, many seemingly insoluble problems would prove less intractable.’
An earlier version of this article appeared in Dharma Life magazine Issue 1