Suu Kyi and Sharmila – The struggle of two human rights activists


Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and Irom Chanu Sharmila of India are two internationally recognized human rights activists of their time.
Different circumstances entailed them to fight for democracy and human rights in their respective countries but with a similar objective of ushering peace and justice for the general public.
The two share some interesting similarities that have encouraged and motivated millions of people around the world.
First is the cause of their sacrifices. They both have been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence. Suu Kyi had been under some form of detention for 15 of the past 21 years when she was released on November 13, 2010.
She was initially placed under house arrest on July 20, 1989 under martial law that allowed for detention without charge or trial for three years. During the years of her detention, Suu Kyi was offered freedom if she chose to leave the country but refused it knowing that she would not be allowed back into the country.
Suu Kyi’s primary objective, at least during the years of her house arrest, was to bring an end to military dictatorship in Myanmar and then to establish a democratic country where there is rule of law and respect for human rights.
On the other hand, Sharmila ended her 16-year-long hunger strike on August 9, 2016. Because of her refusal of food and water for more than 500 weeks, she has been called the world’s longest hunger striker.
Sharmila’s hunger strike began on November 5, 2000 after the Indian army killed 10 civilians in Malom, a town in the Imphal valley of Manipur.
Her demand has been the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), passed by the Indian government in 1958, which grants security forces the power to search properties without a warrant, arrest people, and use deadly force if there is a reasonable suspicion that a person is acting against the state.
Second is their recognition. Among others, Suu Kyi has been awarded Rafto Prize and Sakharov Prize in 1990, Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and Francois Zimeray, France’s Ambassador for Human Rights in 2011.
Similarly, Sharmila has been recognized with Gwangju Prize for Human Rights in 2007, the first Mayillama Award of the Mayilamma Foundation in 2009, and lifetime achievement award from the Asian Human Rights Commission in 2010.
Third is their political ambition. Suu Kyi, whose father was the architect of Myanmar’s independence, has come from a political family. However, she was politically a novice until she, on August 26, 1988, addressed about half a million people at a mass rally in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda in the then capital city Rangoon, calling for a democratic government.
The massive gathering was in someway could be construed as a culmination of pro-democracy movement in the backdrop of the military junta violently suppressing pro-democracy demonstrations.
After spending several years of her life as a democratic icon and human rights activist, Suu Kyi decided to contest the 2012 by-election with the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party she co-founded on September 27, 1988.
And after serving as the opposition leader, Suu Kyi contested the 2015 general election. Though the constitution bars her from the country’s presidency, she is the de-facto leader of the NLD government in her capacity as the state counselor, foreign minister and minister of the president’s office.
After becoming a politician, Suu Kyi has received her share of criticism for not speaking up or being reticent to defend human rights, the core value she had stood for many years.
On the other hand, Sharmila’s entry into politics is another strategy she has chosen to continue her struggle for the repeal of AFSPA. She believes that the politics in Manipur is dirty and the politicians who would fight for the repeal of AFSPA are corrupt.
Her immediate political ambition is to contest in next year’s Manipur state assembly election as an independent candidate and oust the incumbent Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh. Her hope is that at least 20 other independent candidates would support in her bid to remove the present government.
Fourth is the choice of their spouses. Suu Kyi was married to Michael Aris, a British scholar of Tibetan culture. Her marriage to a foreigner and their foreign-citizen children has disqualified her from holding the job of the presidency.
Sharmila has said she would marry Desmond Coutinho, a British national of Indian origin, if people reject her as a politician. The idea of tying the knot with a foreigner has faced criticism from within the Manipuri society and from pressure groups such as the Meira Paibis, who have alleged that Coutinho was trying to sway Sharmila and derail their movement to repeal AFSPA. Sharmila has also received death threats for considering to marry a foreigner.
While Suu Kyi has transformed from being a human rights activist to a de-facto leader of the NLD government, it remains to be seen if Sharmila would ever become the chief minister of Manipur and succeed in repealing AFSPA.

(Dr Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. His writings (books and articles) have been widely published in over 30 countries in five continents – Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.)


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