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Date: Wed, 14 May 97 11:09:39 CDT
Subject: Women of Burma, by Aung San Suu Kyi

Letter from Burma: The "Fighting Peacock Maidens" of freedom

By Aung San Suu Kyi, Nation (Bangkok), 8 May 1997

May is the month of merry madness and darling buds when, in temperate lands, people are turning their faces towards the kindly light of the spring sky. The Burmese word may means young woman or mother. It is a soft sounding word with a spring flavour in a country that knows no spring, but its softness belies the hard lot of many of our women, especially women involved in politics.

Some years ago, just before I was placed under house arrest, I was sent a poem by somebody who called herself Fighting Peacock Maiden". I do not know who she was and what role she played in the democracy movement. Somehow I had the impression that she was young. But her knowledge of the path of politics, perhaps a knowledge acquired through poetic inspiration rather than practical experience, was mature and disturbingly acute.

She entitled her poem, "Thorn and Pride".

Grasp bravely
The signpost of pride,
Let it be steadfast;
As we struggle forward
To continue the journey
Another step. . .
. .Holding fast to our conviction,
Grasp strongly
Don't let it waver!
We dare
To stay here,
To blossom here,
To drop here.

How many of our women, in particular the mothers and wives of prisoners of conscience, have to take that hard another step" each day? A prisoner is allowed a laminate visit from his family once a fortnight.

The preparations for this visit begin a few days in advance as mothers, wives, sisters and daughters start shopping and cooking and packing the parcels of food and medicine without which their loved ones would be unable to survive the tough their election, a third of the women members of Parliament were deprived of their positions and their liberty. A high toll indeed.

Life is not easy for women political prisoners. They are kept together with ordinary criminals and often subjected to humiliating treatment from the wardens. Delicate young women used to a sheltered existence find themselves consorting with murderers and have to learn the basic rules of harmonious human relationships.

One prisoner of conscience gave birth to her baby in the jail hospital and, for the sake of the child, had to let her family take it away from her after a couple of months.

It needs fortitude and good humour to cope with a prison environment and some of the women proved to have ample reserves of both.

There were those who danced at the time of the Burmese New Year at the cost of a period of punishment in solitary confinement- and considered that they have done well out of the bargain. They got their priorities correct.

But of course it is not all fun and games in a penal institution far from it. There must have been times when women confined by the walls of prison and bound in uncongenial companionships must have longed for the wings of a dove that they might fly to gentle lands ruled by compassion. There must have been times when they wished that the gods were kindly beings who looked down on mere mortals not with stern indifference but with sweet understanding.

For women not incarcerated in prison but fighting for their right to engage in the everyday work of a political party, there are different kinds of challenges.

The women of the NLD are of all ages and come from all strata of society and have learned to approach their work with an insouciant gaiety in the face of what might be euphemistically termed "grave official disapproval".

There are comfortable housewives; brisk businesswomen, well qualified pro regime of Burmese jails.

The unfortunate ones who are kept in prisons far from their home towns - a gratuitous piece of cruelty - can only look forward to a monthly visit at best. Octogenarian mothers have made this bittersweet trip regularly, determined to exchange a loving look and a smile of encouragement with sons grown gaunt after years away from the comforts and the carefully prepared food of home.

Young wives, pretty brows furrowed with anxiety, try to present a brave image of strength and health as they search for words that will not betray the difficulties faced by families torn apart.

Children chatter inconsequentially, unconsciously following the lead of their elders in the attempt to make the abnormal appear as everyday fare. And all the while they are thinking of the years of separation that still stretch ahead.

I know a mother who made a vow to wear the tree bark brown colour of ascetics for the rest of her life if her son was not released by her 60th birthday. That birthday has come and gone and her son remains in prison. She continues to face each another step with pride, her sad face beautifully above the somber colour of her clothes.

During the elections of 1990, 16 women candidates were returned successfully All 15 belonged to the National League for Democracy. Of these, five were imprisoned shortly after the elections and one was disqualified on the pretext that her accounting of campaign expenses was unsatisfactory. Thus within months of fessionals, lively pensioners and dedicated young students. They are joined together in the belief that it is their duty to fight for the kind of society where they and their families are respected for their human worth rather than for their social status.

The women often display impressive organizational capacity and initiative quietly finding their way around the restrictions placed on the activities of the party.

There were also several young women with a decided talent for acting. One of them had to spend her nights plaiting ropes to support a living for her elderly mother and herself but she did not miss coming to any of the rehearsals for a. play in which she portrayed a young village girl engaged in resistance activities during the war.

For our water festival, we arranged an entertainment programme that ranged from pop songs to a Burmese version of Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man" There was also a dance of peacock maidens, resplendent in shimmering blue-green, symbolising the beauty of committed struggle.

I have no idea where the "Fighting Peacock Maiden" who sent me the poem might be, but I would like her to know that there are those who have not fallen away, who are prepared to take another proud step toward that goal within their hearts, with complete conviction but with a wonderful lightness of spirit.

Aung San Suu Kyi

SLORC is a group of "Heroin Generals" that rules Burma with financial backing from drug kingpins and multinational corporations such as Unocal, ARCO, Texaco, Total, Mitsubishi, Caterpiller, as well as political endorsement by ASEAN (Association of South E ast Asian Nations) governments.

--The Free Burma Coalition