On June 19, 2023, the ruling Junta in Myanmar arrested and even tortured women who dared hold a flower in their hands that day – the birthday of jailed leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The flowers are associated with the way Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement, wears flowers in her hair. That day, women wore flowers in their hair, some carried a flower in their hand, shops sold flowers and others posted photos on Facebook of themselves holding a flower in their hand.

But the junta could not tolerate the idea that people across Myanmar had decided to hold a flower protest to celebrate the birthday of their beloved leader.

Women were detained for the crime of wearing a flower in their hair with the crackdown including anyone who dared to post a photo holding a flower or a birthday greeting, reported the international media. “How can the military be afraid of one person with a flower?” The New York Times quoted a man as saying.

Credit: Reuters.

To understand the military regime’s mindless acts of violence against its own people it is important to understand the moral force that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi exerts in her country, even while incarcerated.

In 2023, everyone knew that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was in jail in the capital city of Naypyidaw, where she has been lodged since the junta staged a coup in February 2021 to prevent her from ensuring Myanmar’s full transition from military rule to a democracy.

But this year, it is unclear where Aung San Suu Kyi is.

In April, the junta announced that she had been released from jail because detention was affecting her health and the heat was unbearable. Military leaders claimed that she was under house arrest. But her supporters and her son, Kim Aris, said she was being kept in an unknown location to be used as a bargaining chip. The armed resistance has gained ground in recent months and has reclaimed parts of Myanmar from military rule.

For the people of Myanmar, the leader of the National League for Democracy is an icon and an inspiration for their continued resistance against army rule. For the west, she is a saint who has fallen from grace and for the military junta she is just a bargaining chip.

On June 19, Daw Aung Suu Kyi will be 79 years old.

She is frail and unwell but she is strong, determined and steadfast in her commitment to her people and to the idea of a united, democratic and federal Myanmar.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s life, her political choices, her strategies and tactics have often been criticised within Myanmar and also outside.

In the beginning, she drew flak for not being critical of the Tatamadaw, as the Myanmar military was called. Tatmadaw means “Royal” or “glorious”, and it was established by Burma’s freedom fighters to resist British rule. This was in contrast to the British army that was created as an instrument of repression for the colonial rulers. The Tatmadaw had proud traditions and for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi it was, above all, an institution created by her father General Aung San – considered the father of Burmese nationalism.

General Aung San was assassinated in 1947 when Suu Kyi was a toddler. She continued her studies – in India and Oxford in Britain – and married Michael Aris with whom she had two sons. But she always knew that she may be called upon to go back and she kept her Burmese passport.

In 1988, when there was a national uprising, Aung San Suu Kyi was in Rangoon to look after her ailing mother when she was offered something the opposition did not have: a single figure behind which to rally and unify.

But she was arrested in July 1989.

Despite being kept under house arrest for 15 years, attempts on her life, slander – the military called her a “prostitute” for marrying a foreigner – and having to sacrifice her family life, she did not say a word against the Tatmadaw. She knew she had to finally negotiate with them and if they did not trust her, it would be impossible for her to transition Myanmar into a democracy.

Myanmar military chief General Min Aung Hlaing and National League for Democracy party leader Aung San Suu Kyi shake hands after their meeting at the Commander in-Chief’s office in Naypyidaw in this photograph from 2015. Credit: AFP.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s moral strength and resolution to restore democratic rule inspired the international community and they showered upon her accolades. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

In 2010, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released and since then, she has moved inch by inch to bring democratic rule in Myanmar. She led her party, the National League for Democracy, to victory in election after election – and even in 2020, she won the xx elections by a huge majority.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could not be elected President because the law says that since her children have foreign citizenship, she is disqualified. That is why a new post was created and she was appointed “State Counsellor”.

Though she ruled the country, the Myanmar parliament had 25% reservations for the military. In other words, she could not go beyond a point as a democratic ruler because there was always the danger that the military would stage a coup. That is exactly what happened in February 2021, the day she and newly elected members of Parliament were to be sworn. Following the coup, she along with other political leaders, poets, activists and journalists were detained.

This time, she was not put under house arrest but in a prison in Naypyidaw.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with corruption and absurd charges and sentenced to 33 years in jail. The international community is largely silent and world media has turned away from the sufferings of Myanmar.

One of the reasons has been a smear campaign against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for not condemning the persecution of Rohingya in Rakhine state. The Gambia even took Myanmar to the International Court of Justice for genocide.

There is no doubt that the Rohingyas are a persecuted minority and the Myanmar army committed horrendous crimes in the name of suppressing the Rohingya militants. But it is not true that Aung San Suu Kyi has not condemned the persecution. She has recognised the need to bring the perpetrators to justice: a group of Buddhist monks, or the 969 Movement led by U Wirathu, opposed to what they see as Islam’s expansion in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

These Buddhist extremists spread hatred and instigated the persecution of the Rohingya, but not all Buddhist monks supported them. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has always distanced herself from any form of Buddhist extremism. She is certainly not a victim of Islamophobia and the legal advisor of her party and someone whom she worked closely with was Ko Ni, a Muslim of Indian-Burmese origin. He was assassinated, allegedly at the behest of the Myanmar military in 2017.

According to one report, the murder was planned in the presence of U Lin Zaw Tun, a parliamentarian from the extremist Union Solidarity and Development Party. Two months before the general election, Lin Zaw Tun, a former colonel, personally donated K40 million (about US$30,000) to the extremist organisation Ma Ba Tha. The donation was accepted by the group’s figurehead, the Buddhist monk U Wirathu.

Wirathu has incited the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar through his speeches. After repeated warnings, Facebook banned his page for spreading religious hatred towards other communities.

Buddhist nationalist monk Wirathu in Yangon, Myanmar, in November 2020. Credit: Reuters.

Ko Ni, the Muslim lawyer, is considered the one responsible for helping create the State Counsellor position for Aung San Suu Kyi. He had also condemned the repression of Rohingyas in no uncertain terms while trying to promote inter-faith dialogue and was in the process of drafting amendments to the 2008 Constitution which gives 25% reservation to the Myanmar military.

The West ran a vicious campaign against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for not condemning the persecution of Rohingyas in the way they thought appropriate. It lowered her prestige and undermined her power to negotiate with the junta. As a State Counsellor, she had no choice but to appear before the International Court of Justice and place her case before them. She did not deny the persecution but stated that the situation was much more complex and it could not be called a genocide.

But the hypocrisy of the West lies in the fact that they are quite happy to see Bangladesh bear the burden of giving refuge to the Rohingya while have not given them resettlement under their asylum laws and condemning Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for not taking up their cause as vociferously as they want.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also been criticised for not supporting the demands of the ethnic nationalities and her efforts at bringing them together have been seen as a failure. However, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has never condemned armed resistance even though she herself is firmly committed to nonviolent means of struggle.

On her 79th birthday, it is time to celebrate the stoic determination, her dignity and iron cast commitment to bringing democracy to Myanmar. She has worked tirelessly, sacrificing her own happiness for the sake of the people, and her people have not let her down.

India must demand the immediate release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. India has a stake in the return of democracy in the neighbourhood and the country’s connections with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi run deep.

A new generation of democracy activists will emerge and new leaders will replace this generation, but whoever they are and when they begin the task of building Myanmar into a democratic and federal country, they will appreciate the difficulties faced by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – and she will be more appreciated and her moral courage will continue to inspire the movement.

The young will realise that it is indeed a long way to walk to freedom. That is the lesson of her life for us all.

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and award-winning author.