25 years after the unrest of 8.8.88, Myanmar is beginning to define itself as a new nation. Aung San Suu Ki is one of the most known internationally known leaders, but there are many who witnessed and survived the difficult years that birthed Myanmar, once Burma, from a dictatorship to a struggling democracy. Leadership in this transition requires a complicated dance among four necessary transformative acts: innovation, compromise, witness, and healing.
According to a retrospective in Northwest Asian Weekly by Yadana Htun and Tim Sullican, (credited to AP), the first and most difficult task of Myanmar’s citizens is learning to speak the traumas they endured as they fought for freedom.
The doctor, in spectacles in this iconic picture of the assault on protesters, says now, ““The door is only open a little bit,” says Win, now 48, taking long pauses as he tries to find the right words. “I want to talk, for the sake of history, and all those who died. In my heart, I feel like this is the right time. But still I feel insecure.”
It is a story from so many nations that have struggled with the aftermaths of their own horrors. When is the right time to push long-hidden conversations into the open, to deal with the past, to cope?” (from the AP article)
“Myanmar, like China, is a nation where dictatorial rule has become less harsh, though it remains far from truly democratic. And Myanmar’s history has bred generations of pessimists.” Leadership in this traumatized nation must take into account the trauma that has created this pessimism, as well as the struggle to move towards democracy.
In a Marine Corps Gazette article, Lt. Cole Michael D. Grice talks about his own experiences with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and the ways he supported his unit as a leader to prevent and identify PTSD.
He writes: “I firmly believe that my unit became stronger and more cohesive because of the demystification of PTSD and acceptance that it was an expected and not abnormal response to combat experiences…. The stigma against leaders seeking help is a strong one.”
Grice used what he called “old-fashioned leadership,” talking with the soldiers in his unit, opening up dialogue and motivating them to be more prepared for trauma, more willing to speak up when they are struggling. The goal was not only a greater possibility for his soldiers to be treated for their trauma, but also a greater unity and support among the troops, for their mission and for each other.
In 1988, Aung San Suu Ki asked pro-democracy activists for the same unity and attention for each other in order to create a multi-party system. She commented: “What stage have we reached now? Well, our cherished aim is clearly within sight. Let us march forward together towards that goal. Let no divisions creep in. It is important that divisions of opinion should not arise among the students. There should be a complete restraint on creating such divisions. Therefore should differences arise between them now the country’s future unity will be jeopardized.
In April, 2013, she spoke out against recent violence against Muslims in Burma/Myanmar, calling, very simply for all four of the actions I summarized before (innovation, compromise, witness and healing):
“I’ve said that the most important thing is to establish the rule of law…(it) is not just about the judiciary, it’s about the administration, it’s about the government, it’s about our police force, it’s about the training that we give to security forces.”
She added that Myanmar’s courts do not meet democratic standards as they are “totally dominated by the executive.”
“They wanted me to talk about how to make these communal differences disappear…I’m not a magician. If I were, I’d say ‘disappear’ and they would all disappear. Differences take a long time to sort out,” she told Japanese students.
“We have to establish an atmosphere of security in which people with different opinions can sit down and exchange ideas and think of the things we have in common.”