Burma is in the news again with this week’s military coup, and Nepalis who had known Aung San Suu Kyi during visits to Kathmandu are concerned about her safety and of other democracy leaders.
Aung San Suu Kyi first came to Nepal when her mother Khin Kyi was Burmese ambassador to Nepal and India. In a later visit in 1973 with her husband Michael Aris and her infant son Alexander, she stayed at the Dharma Kirti Vihara in Kathmandu for five months.
Every time she visited Nepal after that she went to the monastery near Asan which is headed by Guruma Dhammavati. The venerated Buddhist nun remembers Aung San Suu Kyi as a patient and quiet person.
“Politics is full of ups and downs, I believe she will soon be released,” says Dhammavati who taught the Burmese leader about Buddhism.
Rina Tuladhar at the Dharma Kirti Vihar says Aung San Suu Kyi had a special connection with the monastery and Kathmandu: “She had said during one of our conversations that she turns to the teachings of Guruma Dhammavati when she is going through difficult times. She is going through a difficult time now.”
Aung San Suu Kyi went to Lady Sri Ram College in New Delhi and lived in Thimphu and Kathmandu, writing two books about Bhutan and Nepal. Her husband was a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism in the Himalaya.
“I always wanted to learn English and when I heard there was an English teacher at the vihara, I joined the class. It was only many years later, when I saw her on tv that I realised she was an important political figure. We called her Maa Suu Kyi,” says Chinikaji Maharjan, who was tutored by Suu Kyi when he was five.
There were 20 pupils in the English class, and one of them was Trilochana Tuladhar, who remembers being told that a Burmese teacher had joined the vihara. “But we didn’t know who she was,” she says.
Aung San Suu Kyi and President Myint Swe were arrested on 1 February by the army in night-time sweeps in Yangon along with other ministers and members of parliament. There is heavy military presence in the capital Naypiydaw and Yangon, and media control has been tightened.
Aung San Suu Kyi visited the vihara again in 2016 when she attended the controversial ‘Asia-Pacific Summit’ in Kathmandu in 2016 organised by the Korean Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon.
During the visit there was a special gathering at the vihara, where she enquired about her students. “We stood up from our seats so that she could see us from the stage, but because it was a big event, we did not get to speak to her,” Tuladhar recalls.
Ever since news came of the military coup in Burma and Suu Kyi’s arrest this week, Guruma Dhammavati has been recalling her days at the vihara.
“Her eldest son Alexander was only three months old at the time,” remembers Dhammawati. “Her husband headed to the mountains to conduct a study on the gumba, and Suu Kyi stayed at the vihara with her son.”
Born in Cuba, her husband, Michael Aris was a historian and wrote books on Buddhist traditions in the Himalaya. He died in Oxford in 1999, while Suu Kyi was still under house arrest in Yangon.
Dhammavati herself visited Aung San Suu Kyi during her trip to Burma with other Buddhist nuns from Nepal in 1992. “She was under house arrest at the time and would spend her time in meditation and reading. We had lunch at her house, and there was a tight military presence,” she says.
Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 2010, and her National League for Democracy swept the election five years later. She was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle for democracy.
But the international respect she had was soon eclipsed by her refusal to speak out against the persecution of the Rohingya. Some 700,000 people from this ethnic group in western Burma have fled to Bangladesh since 2017, with a few thousand even finding their way to refugee camps in Kathmandu.
Burma’s military junta has come under worldwide criticism in the wake of the coup, with only Beijing supporting it at the United Nations this week. The Nepal government has also called for the release of President Myint Swe and Suu Kyi.
“This seems like a time of political turmoil the world over,” says her student Trilochana Tuladhar. “Things are not any different in Nepal after Prime Minister Oli dissolved the House.”
At the Dharma Kirti Vihara in Kathmandu, Aung San Suu Kyi’s students and teacher are praying for her early release, and for things to return to normal in Burma.
Says Guruma Dhammavati: “What makes me sad is that these events keep repeating themselves in countries like ours.”