Those reading disturbing news about the junta’s arrest of nearly 100 people, mostly women, for brandishing flowers to mark the 78th birthday of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi may think this is a new form of crackdown.
But a glance at Myanmar’s turbulent political history shows this is far from the first time that generals have punished citizens for merely displaying loyalty to the democracy leader. The punishments date back to the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and have continued ever since, testifying to the grudges, fear and jealousy felt by military leaders toward Suu Kyi.
In 1989, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for the first time by the junta, then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize three years later on December 10, 1991. That same day, Yangon University students took to the streets to demand her immediate release and ratification of the 1990 general election’s landslide victory for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.
The regime responded with a brutal crackdown on students, arresting over 400 and imprisoning 100 for supporting the democracy icon.
A resident of Yangon’s South Okkalapa Township was handed three years in prison after calling in public for Suu Kyi to be set free. U Ba Thein had been arrested seeking donations at a booth in his ward while using a loudspeaker to pray for her release. In prison, he was affectionally known as ‘Speaker Ba Thein’, NLD patron U Win Htein recalled in his book.
After Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 1995, she organized weekend talks at her residence in Yangon’s Bahan Township, which drew crowds in their hundreds. Angered by the floral tokens of affection showered upon her by the crowds, the regime aired a satirical short drama on state TV about her wearing flowers in her hair.
Flowers had been a thorny symbol for the generals long before that.
A female NLD party member who made weekly trips to lay flowers at the grave of Daw Khin Kyi – Suu Kyi’s mother and the wife of independence hero General Aung San – was arrested in 1989 not long after Suu Kyi was detained. She was charged with posing a threat to security and handed three years in jail.
More than a dozen people collectively dubbed the prayer group for their weekend gatherings in front of Suu Kyi’s residence – where they would chant for the good health of the democracy leader, as well as then-NLD vice chair U Kyi Maung and NLD patron U Tin Oo – were also handed seven years in Yangon’s Insein Prison.
After Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for a third time in 2003, female NLD members held prayers in Yangon for the release of all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi.
Despite being disrupted by regime officials, they organized prayers every Tuesday at popular Yangon pagodas including Shwedagon and Sule. NLD member Daw Naw Ohn Hla was sent straight to Insein Prison for organizing prayers at Shwedagon Pagoda. A court later confined her to Hmawbi, where she lived.
Successive military regimes have imposed severe penalties on anyone who dares to show public support for Suu Kyi. These repressive reactions speak of the deep fear and paranoia that the democracy leader triggers in military generals as they struggle against the country’s tide of popular opinion.
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s status as the mother of the nation remains strong in the hearts and minds of the civilian population.