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Two women: Suu Kyi and Chanu
Publication Date : 08-03-2013
There is much that is common between Aung San Suu Kyi and Irom Sharmila Chanu, two unique women from Myanmar and Manipur.
While Suu Kyi never took a break from her intrepid struggle to bring about democracy and to attain human rights and ethnic conciliation, the “iron lady from Manipur” is ready to give up her life to protect her people from oppression.
For both of them, it has been a relentless fight against formidable opponents. Whereas Suu Kyi has fought against repression and military tyranny, Sharmila Chanu’s struggle is against the biggest custodian of the world’s largest democracy.
Suu Kyi returned to her country in 1988 and has since then led the pro-democracy movement against its autocratic junta government. She founded the National League for Democracy, was barred from assuming power despite her electoral triumph, and was under house arrest for almost 15 years...till her release in November 2010.
In 1997, her husband and a scholar in Tibetan studies, applied for a visa to meet his wife; it was refused by the Myanmarese authorities. He was suffering from terminal cancer, and wanted to see his wife.
But the government, headed by the junta, did not want a Westerner to come and see for himself the kind of repressive governance that Myanmar showcased. In response to requests from world leaders, including the Pope and the UN Secretary-General, the government released Suu Kyi from house arrest and allowed her to leave the country to join her husband in Britain. But she was acutely aware of the junta’s design and refused to leave her country.
She was ready to sacrifice matters personal for the sake of her country. She could never see her husband any more as Michael Aris died within two years. Much as she mourned the loss, she never deviated from her objectives.
She was incarcerated for 15 years under the State Protection Act (SPA) of 1975, which provides for imprisonment without trial. But Than Shwe’s junta government never released her before November 2010.
She has written in her book, "Freedom from Fear", “Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man...It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it....it would be difficult to dispel ignorance unless there is freedom to pursue the truth unfettered by fear.”
An almost similar background has impelled the Manipuri girl, "Mengoubi" Irom Sharmila Chanu, to sacrifice her life, should the need arise.. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA) can even be compared to Myanmar’s SPA. The Act in India grants special powers to the armed forces in what it terms “disturbed areas” in the seven states of the northeast. This empowers the army to enter and search any premise, arrest a person without warrant and fire upon or use other kinds of force even if it causes death.
In 2004, the Manipur government withdrew the Act in some constituencies against the wishes of the centre. Two years later, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured the people of Manipur that the government would effect a “humane” amendment of the Act on the basis of the report furnished by the Jeevan Reddy Commission. That assurance is yet to materialise.
On Nov 2, 2000, troops of the 8 Assam Rifles fired at a group of people who were waiting at a bus-stand at Malom, a small town in the Imphal valley. Ten people, including students and women, were killed and 42 injured. The incident was a grotesque abuse of the AFSPA.
Human rights activists have pointed out that there is no provision to kill innocents.
Two days after the incident, Sharmila, then a 27-year-old civil rights activist, protested against this brutal massacre. Since then she has been on hunger-strike demanding the repeal of the AFSPA. She has alleged that torture, forced abduction and extra-judicial convictions were all rooted in the Act. Three days after she began her hunger-strike, she was arrested on the charge of attempted suicide.
Since then, she has been confined to the jail ward of Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal and is in judicial custody. Her condition has worsened over time and the police are forcibly feeding her liquefied carbohydrates and proteins thrice a day through what in medical terminology is called the “nasogastric intubation process”.
She has not even met her mother, Shakhi Devi, who lives just a mile away from the hospital. Mother and daughter have agreed that meetings might undermine her determination.
She looks emaciated. She is not even permitted to exercise or walk outside during the day, a right all prisoners are entitled to. Sharmila, who cleans her teeth with dry cotton so that water does not pass her lips, reaffirms her vow every moment--not to end her hunger-strike until the AFSPA is repealed. Unlike Suu Kyi, Sharmila hasn’t attracted the attention of the world at large. This is because of her irregular access to the national media and the absence of a lobby group that can at least buttress her cause. In an interview given a couple of years back to Andrew Buncombe of The Independent, London, Sharmila said"
“Everything is in such a mess in Manipur right now. The politicians depend entirely on power, on physical power. They are power-hungry. My struggle is in the name of justice, peace and love. I am a very simple symbol of those things. My struggle is a very simple matter. Our oldest teacher is nature. Nature has no discrimination. I draw my inspiration from this. To change the structure in Manipur is my biggest challenge. It’s a bounden duty.”
Suu Kyi and Sharmila are the lodestars of the power of women, their energy and fortitude in a world where they are being targeted every now and then. They are fighting not merely for women’s rights but to liberate mankind from despotic and draconian measures of the State.
The writer is a principal at the Bangabasi Morning College, Kolkata.