By: Ben Bryan Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Nobel
Aung San Suu Kyi, as the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), a major political party in Burma, undertook a speaking tour of her country in the spring of 2003. While travelling in a convoy with many of her supporters on May 30th of that year, an armed attack took place, widely believed to be an assassination attempt by Burma’s ruling military junta.
Because of the courage of her driver, Suu Kyi narrowly escaped injury, but 70 of her followers were beaten to death. This was but one of the many instances of violence perpetrated on the people of Burma, now known as Myanmar, by its totalitarian dictators. Although such violence has been widespread in Myanmar since the country’s representative democracy was crushed in 1962, it was the closest and certainly most personal brush with violence suffered by the Lady, as Suu Kyi is widely and adoringly known, since she became the leader of the pro-democracy opposition in Myanmar in 1988.
Following the assassination attempt, Suu Kyi was put under house arrest "for her own protection." This marked her third protracted stay under house arrest, totaling 15 years between 1990 and 2010. While under house arrest, the Lady was prevented from being by her dying husband’s side, who passed away in 1999, and she now has grandchildren that she has never met.
The Nobel Prize
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, while she was under house arrest for the first time. The Norwegian Nobel Committee cited her "nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights," and noted her "interest in Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent protest".
In November 2010, Myanmar’s governing junta released Suu Kyi after nearly seven years of house arrest. Her release was a major international news story, demonstrating her global standing as a pro-democracy leader and icon. More importantly, her followers in Myanmar appeared as devoted and jubilant as ever, and to the presumed dismay of the country’s military leadership that must have hoped for an "out of sight, out of mind" outcome, her popularity among the people of Myanmar had not diminished. She drew a crowd of thousands to a rally the day after her release.
Despite her personal suffering at the hands of the junta and the continuing violence perpetrated by the junta on the people of Myanmar, and at one time directed to her personally, Aung San Suu Kyi has remained steadfast in her nonviolent principles. She professes no grudge or resentment against the ruling generals. She continues to adhere to the moral high ground. The New York Times, reporting from the rally featuring Suu Kyi the day after her release, commented "... she had emerged with her popularity and moral authority intact."
Preaching nonviolence and promoting reconciliation does not mean Aung San Suu Kyi shrinks from confrontation. In fact, her November 2010 rally, just after release, and subsequent public appearances were direct challenges to the military and simply a renewal of the confrontational style that has been a hallmark of her pro-democracy leadership since 1988.
The Daughter of a Hero
Born into a prominent Burmese family in 1945, Aung San Suu Kyi shied away from direct involvement in her country’s politics until events compelled her to step forward in 1988. That year in Burma is sometimes compared to the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia—a time of popular uprising against a repressive regime. In Burma’s case, the regime agreed to democratic elections, and Suu Kyi helped to form the NLD, becoming its general secretary.
Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San was the commander of the Burma Independence Army in the 1940’s and was a key figure in Burma’s struggle to break free of British colonial rule. Still regarded as a national hero, Aung San was assassinated in 1947 when his only daughter was two years old, and just six months before Burma gained independence.
As the child of a privileged family, Aung San Suu Kyi spent many of the first 30 years of her life abroad. She was educated at Oxford University in the mid-1960’s and worked at the United Nations in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when fellow countryman U Thant was Secretary-General. She married an Englishman, Michael Aris, in the early 1970’s and they had two sons.
Returning to Burma in March 1988 to care for her ailing mother, Suu Kyi was galvanized by the rapid political changes and ensuing popular protests that took place that spring, as well as the repressive response by the ruling dictators. Soon she was speaking before crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands, espousing Buddhist values and Gandhian principals of nonviolence. The NLD rapidly became the leading political party in the run up to the elections. In a speech on August 26, 1988 she said, "I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on."
However, by 1989, Suu Kyi’s popularity and uncompromising criticisms of the military and its tactics resulted in her being prohibited from personally standing for election and her first house arrest. She undertook a hunger strike that succeeded in guaranteeing better treatment of anti-government student protesters.
The NLD won 82 percent of the seats in the new parliament despite her detention, a result so anathema to the military that it refused to sanction the result, and the nascent democracy movement in Burma was crushed.
Myanmar has today emerged from a long period of isolation to recognize its strategic geopolitical importance as a country bordering both China and India. Those countries are now competing for Myanmar’s abundant natural resources, promising economic revitalization in the face of a long-standing U.S.-led economic boycott. Emboldened, the military regime in Myanmar held elections in November 2010, the first in 20 years.
Still under house arrest, Suu Kyi called for a boycott of the elections, which were widely perceived in the West to be a sham. As a result of the boycott, the NLD was stripped of its political rights, and a new constitution containing clauses specifically designed to keep Aung San Suu Kyi from ever serving as Myanmar’s leader were enacted.
Symbolically released from house arrest just a week after the sham elections, an undeterred Suu Kyi told The New York Times that she intends to lead a nonviolent revolution.
Now 65 years old, the Lady is still described in news reports as "lissome" and "regal." Her hair remains black, is usually adorned with a flower, and tops a long face dominated by a brilliant smile and piercing dark eyes. Reporters who meet her comment on her discipline and calm, but it belies an energy that continues to excite her supporters.
Often compared to Nelson Mandela as, "a symbol of hope and change," Suu Kyi may be ultimately judged by whether, like Mandela, she can lead her people to an overthrow of the repressive Myanmar regime and personally take the reins of a new democratic government. But, this comparison to Mandela would be unfair on a number of levels.
The situation today in Myanmar is very different from that in South Africa in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The regime in Myanmar is not in danger of collapse and there is not a reform process underway; in fact the military junta may be stronger than ever given their new found economic opportunities. It is thought that members of the junta would have to turn on their colleagues for democratic reform to ultimately succeed, but this would not be unprecedented given recent history in the neighboring Asian countries of Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it is not Suu Kyi’s mission to be a hero, as her father was before her. Although an NLD colleague, Win Htein asserts, "She is like her father in that she has no qualms about losing her life." In fact, she has said in recent news reports, "I’m not very much concerned whether I personally come to power, but I am concerned about the power of the people. One person alone can’t do anything as important as bringing genuine democracy to a country."
Aung San Suu Kyi has transcended the day-to-day squabbles of her political party, the ethnic strife that has plagued Burma, and the pressures laid on her—fairly or unfairly—by the international community. Her concerns are larger— "lack of spiritual development, ignorance, and selfishness." And she works tirelessly to promote "compassion and understanding." As a practicing Buddhist, she insists that, "regret is unacceptable."
A recent Time profile concluded with Suu Kyi asserting that she "considers herself lucky—not because of the people’s adoration of her but because of their respect—a value she believes stems from a generosity of spirit." She unites a commitment and tenacity around democracy, respect for human rights, reconciliation between groups, non-violence, and personal and collective discipline. Whether or not events unfold in Myanmar that might ultimately allow Aung San Suu Kyi to emerge as its governmental leader is yet to be seen. But, she is unquestionably Myanmar’s spiritual exemplar as well as a symbol of hope to anyone in the world who is fighting for democratic and human rights.
Ben Bryan is president of Owl Properties LLC, a project management firm working in the commercial real estate and financial services industries.