THE LADY: Vision and Motivation
Burma was under British control from 1824 to 1948, when General Aung San, successfully negotiated Burma’s independence from the British. But less than a year after Aung San’s political victory, he was assassinated by rivals within the military. In 1962, the military consolidated its power with a coup that overthrew the government and established a military junta led by General Ne Win and his Socialist Program Party. The 50 years since the junta’s rise have been marred by a regime that brought fear and poverty to Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, was born in 1945, three years before Burma’s independence and her father’s assassination. Born in Rangoon, politics ran her blood. Her father was the founder of the modern Burmese army and mother an ambassador of the country to India and Nepal. Ever since a young age, Suu Kyi was exposed to diverse views on politics and religion which shaped her beliefs and convictions. After leaving the country in the early 1960s for schooling and a position at the United Nations, Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 to be with her ailing mother. She returned to a brewing maelstrom in the country. General Ne Win had just resigned, leaving a vacuum in political leadership; there was growing discontent over the economy and massive, countrywide protests on August 8, 1988. The military cracked down on the pro-democracy demonstrations, killing thousands of protesters.
At a rally of half a million people in Rangoon just three weeks later, Suu Kyi, already in a position of great political influence as the daughter of General Aung San, called for a democratic government on August 26. But a new military junta, led by General Saw Maung, forcefully took control on September 18. In response, Suu Kyi helped establish the National League for Democracy (NLD) and has remained the party’s Secretary General since its founding on September 27, 1988. Yet once the government realized that a sizable political movement was forming behind Suu Kyi’s democratic ideals, she was placed under house arrest on July 21, 1989. She is one of the most prominent political leaders of the country and one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners as well.
Goals and Objectives
Aung San Suu Kyi has devoted her life to the achievement of a free and open Burma. In 1988, Suu Kyi believed the best way to achieve that goal was for the NLD to defeat the military junta in national elections. In the party’s first election in 1990, the NLD won 83% of the parliamentary seats. Suu Kyi, who had been campaigning while under house arrest, was slated to become Prime Minister. Election monitors around the world recognized the fairness of the 1990 elections. Nevertheless, the military junta rejected the results and refused to relinquish its power. It was clear significant violations of civil and political liberties were taking place.
In the face of this obstacle, Suu Kyi’s tactics shifted, and she began using her house arrest as a platform to publicize Burmese human rights violations to the international community. Despite lack of access to the international political arena and media while under house arrest Suu Kyi, continued to communicate with NLD cohorts and the international community through her husband and two sons living in the U.K.
After fulfilling her sentence, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in July 1995. Although free to leave the confines of her home, she was banned from leaving Burma. Suu Kyi spent five years working to promote democracy until she was again arrested in 2000. The Burmese government put Suu Kyi under house arrest for a second time for attempting to break the travel restrictions imposed on her. Again, she used her house arrest as a thoughtful and productive time. Her thoughts led her to conclude, “If suffering were an unavoidable part of our existence, we should try to alleviate it as far as possible in practical, earthly ways.” In her isolation she mulled over the practical ways suffering could be alleviated in Burma such as comprehensive health services, childcare programs, and services for victims of human trafficking.
Following her release from house arrest on May 6, 2002, Suu Kyi immediately began a determined national campaign for the NLD, which was shortened after she was sentenced to house arrest yet again on May 30, 2003. During her third incarceration, she continued to garner domestic and international support from the United States and the European Union, who aggressively pressed the Burmese government for her release. International pressure heightened in the months leading up to the 2010 general elections, calling for the Burmese government to allow Suu Kyi to participate as a candidate. The Burmese government, responsive to international sanctions and rhetorical support for Suu Kyi and democracy, released Suu Kyi from house arrest, albeit a week after November 2010 elections. After her release, Suu Kyi began urging pro-democracy movements to form coalitions.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership cannot be attributed solely to her status as the daughter of a political hero. She is deeply influenced by nonviolent civic leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. As a political leader, she has managed to find an elegant, sustained balance between defiance and nonviolence. Despite a government ban on political gatherings of more than four people, Suu Kyi embarked on a public speaking tour around the country in order to garner support for the NLD; it was not the first time she had defied government orders, nor would it be the last.
For her efforts to bring democracy to Burma, Suu Kyi has received a number of the world’s highest accolades, including the Sakharov Prize, the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Gold Medal. Suu Kyi, using the $1.3 million award from her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, chose to invest in the Burmese people and established The Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Trust for Health and Education. Suu Kyi has donated the funds from all of the awards that she has received to this national trust. While Suu Kyi’s work has been supported internationally, inside Burma the government has not only repeatedly put her under house arrest but it has also outlawed mention of her in the press and banned her photo from public display.
Message and Audience
In stark contrast to the violent tactics of the military government, Suu Kyi’s core message is a call to nonviolent action in the pursuit of democracy. The influence of Buddhism in Aung San Suu Kyi’s politics has been a topic of scholarly analysis for years, and she believes the idea of mutual forgiveness in Buddhism is central to the function of democratic transition. Between her Buddhist beliefs and her familial link to Burma’s revolutionary history, Suu Kyi is has been an easily accessible leader for the Burmese people.
Though house arrest made it impossible to publicly march with her compatriots, Suu Kyi’s integrity and dignified resistance could not be squelched by any physical restrictions. In her famous “Freedom from Fear” speech following the 1990 elections, Suu Kyi told supporters, “It is not power that corrupts, but fear.” Through a series of large, open rallies and carefully worded letters to the members of the junta from both Suu Kyi personally and the leaders of the NLD during her imprisonment, she managed to galvanize the population towards the pursuit of democracy. The military junta had ample capacity to crush any form of resistance by force, and Suu Kyi recognized this. She crafted her message so that the Burmese population could take effective action against the government without risking a violent confrontation with the junta’s military forces.
She has pledged her allegiance to the Burmese people and a democratic Burma. “My party, the National League for Democracy, and I stand ready and willing to play any role in the process of national reconciliation. The potential of our country is enormous. This should be nurtured and developed to create not just a more prosperous but also a more harmonious, democratic society where our people can live in peace, security and freedom.”
Suu Kyi believes that one of the key groups who will facilitate the transition to democracy are the youth, particularly young members of the Burmese military. She argues that the rise in technology and globalization will lead to their allegiances shifting; “The age is on our side in that sense because it is the age of technology. [The government] cannot keep even these young people…cut off completely from the rest of the world. And I think they are going to have many opportunities now that we never had in the past simply because of the technological revolution.”
Suu Kyi’s continued commitment to nonviolence, combined with the esteem and faith of the Burmese people, has earned the Burmese Democratic Movement solidarity and respect throughout the free world. Nonetheless, Suu Kyi still remains vigilant.