Thursday, November 21, 1996

A Tale Of Two Women Fighting For Democracy

The struggles of Aung San Suu Kyi and Megawati Sukarnoputri have their similarities. 

The Nation, November 21, 1996 

What is the question that opposition leaders Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma and Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, two of the most courageous women in Southeast Asia, would like to ask each other? 

In an interview in Rangoon last week, Suu Kyi told The Nation that she wanted to know what Megawati's response was to the fact that some students in Jakarta brought Suu Kyi's poster to the street during protests to support Megawati. 

''I was actually very surprised when I found out the diversity and also a sense of commonness between us. I saw the picture of young Indonesians showing my poster. However, this puts me in a difficult position myself." 

Suu Kyi also said that she has ''a warm feeling" toward Indonesia and that she had met a lot of Indonesians, including the late President Sukarno, Megawati's father, when he visited Rangoon in the 1950s. 

 In a separate interview in Jakarta, Megawati said she wanted to know what Suu Kyi's house looks like now. ''Is the big bamboo hall still there? Is the street in front of her house still being blockaded?" 

Famous people 

The two are leading pro-democracy activists in the region and they are the daughters of two famous people - Sukarno and Gen Aung San - who helped free Indonesia and Burma respectively from their colonial masters after the World War II. 

But Suu Kyi and Megawati have emerged from the shadows of their fathers to lead the opposition against two of the strongest military rulers in Southeast Asia; Indonesia's Suharto and his New Order regime and Burma's State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc). 

Megawati, who was ousted from her position as chairwoman of the Indonesia Democracy Party by a government-backed candidate, is still widely regarded as the legitimate leader of the opposition in Indonesia. 

''Perhaps the similarity between us is that we are trying to contribute something for the future of our nations," said Megawati, admitting that most people recognise a woman like them because of their fathers and their womanhood. 

She and Suu Kyi have also undertaken their own political struggle. Their opponents, however, do not realise that these women have their own political strength as well. And in a bid to downgrade their political influence, their military opponents have pressured their media to refer to them as Mrs Megawati Taufik-Kiemas and Mrs Michael Aris respectively to highlight their husbands' surnames instead of their more famous maiden surnames. 

Are they going to cooperate, or at least share ideas, on democratisation in Southeast Asia? 

Suu Kyi, secretary-general of the National League for Democracy, refused to condemn the Indonesian regime, saying that ''no other government in the world is worse than the Slorc." 

She also said that the administration of President Suharto has achieved a lot in terms of economic development in Indonesia, while Burma under Slorc has stagnated. Suu Kyi believes that as long as Slorc does not recognise the results of the 1990 general election, it is better for the international communities, including Indonesia, to keep Slorc isolated. 

Megawati cautiously said that Slorc had forced Burma to deviate from the spirit of the Asia-Africa Declaration signed in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955 by world leaders from Asia and Africa. 

''Democracy is partly the idea of independence. It is true now that Burma has no democracy and that we should help the Burmese people fight for democracy." 

''It doesn't mean that I want to interfere in Burma's internal affairs but the common platform should be the Asia-Africa Declaration," she noted. 

''If we compare Burma with South Africa, we realise that Burma has been left behind, while South Africa under President Nelson Mandela has already solved its most crucial problem and is preparing for globalisation," she added. 

Suu Kyi criticised the ''constructive engagement" policy conducted by Asean. She said the approach has not led to democracy in Burma, although its supporters believe that her release was due more to Asean's cautious approach rather than the threat of harsher sanctions from the West. 

''It is quite difficult to say whose role is most significant, but to claim that my release was because of Asean is not appropriate as well," she stressed. 

Geographic location 

Megawati believes Burma should become a member of Asean given its geographic location. She hastened to add that Asean membership should not be ''misused to suppress human rights and the opposition" in Burma. 

Slorc is believed eager to join Asean to get a measure of regional support, while it faces international condemnation from Western countries. But Asean members are divided on the timing of Burma's membership. Indonesia and Malaysia agree on letting them join Asean next year, while the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore have expressed some reservations and suggest that membership be delayed. 

How is family life? Both Suu Kyi and Megawati, whose houses had been turned into party headquarters, refused to answer questions about their children and husbands. 

''That is personal. I don't want to answer that question," said Suu Kyi, a mother of two teenage sons.

''The children do not live with their mother anymore now. An uncle takes care of them," said Megawati, a mother of three, declining to give any more details. 

ANDREAS HARSONO is The Nation's correspondent in Jakarta.