Who is Aung San Suu Kyi? Who is “The Lady” who went from being a ‘Saint’ to the leader who mishandled one of the worst humanitarian crises in this century? What are her views and objectives? Is she really “Mother Suu” to her people?
Aung San Suu Kyi’s story is one of severe crests and troughs. It is one that tells the life of a young woman who carries the hefty weight of her father’s legacy, a woman who was thrown –pretty much by inertia- into the political spotlight of Myanmar. It is the story of someone who inspired millions by becoming a universal symbol for non-violent struggle after being a decade-long political prisoner, but who disappointed many more as she failed to fight for the ethnic minorities of her country. The story of Suu Kyi originates almost a century ago, during the days of Myanmar’s struggle for independence. However, it seems that there are still a lot of years left to be intrigued by “The Lady.”
Suu, a Nobel Prize winner, became the State Counselor of Myanmar in 2016, a Prime Minister-like position created specifically for her, due to the constitutional barriers built by the military regime to prevent her from gaining power. This occurred as her party, the National League of Democracy, won a more than 80% majority in the first openly contested parliamentary elections in November of 2015. To reach this milestone, she struggled through decades-long harassment by the military regime, which included years of house arrest, the loss of family and peers, assassination attempts, and the deterioration of her mental and physical health.
Moreover, ever since she became head of government, the power struggle against the dangerous military interference -strongly protected by a rigged constitution- has continued. In order to lead her country through a proper democratic transition, she has had to make some serious concessions to the military regime, especially in regards to the handling of the Rohingya Crisis.
As Myanmar faces rising international pressure regarding its human rights record, as the COVID-19 pandemic hits the country hard, and as the November 2020 elections approach, Suu Kyi will have to step up her policy-making in order to redeem herself and to become the inspiring peace activist the world believed her to be.
Her father’s daughter: The Rise of the Peacock
Aung San Suu Kyi was born as the middle child in Yangon in 1945 to Aung San and Khim Kyi. Even before her birth, her family was significantly involved in the country’s politics. Her father is known as the Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar since he achieved the independence of his country from the British by allying with the Japanese during the Second World War. Unfortunately, six months after independence was signed in 1947 –and while he held the Prime Ministerial post- he was murdered alongside some of his colleagues. His convictions and achievements were largely accredited in his murdering. In another tragedy, Suu also lost her younger brother at a young age when he drowned in their house’s lake.
On the other hand, Suu’s mother was a Burmese diplomat. After her husband’s murder, Suu’s mother was made the first female ambassador of the country. She was sent to India as a means for the military to distance her from Myanmar. Suu, age 15, accompanied her mother where she began her studies abroad. During her time in New Delhi she was able to observe the different results of British colonization between India and Myanmar; while her country had turned into a military dictatorship, India had been able to embrace true democratic development without losing track of its tradition and identity. In India, she saw hope for Myanmar, for her home.
As she grew older, and following in her family’s footsteps, she graduated with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from St Hugh’s College. Suu continued her studies and pursued a Master’s in Politics from Oxford. During this time, she met Michael Aris, her future husband and a key figure in her development as a leader. Nonetheless, she moved away from him to work under U Thant in the UN headquarters as Assistant Secretary, but this opportunity didn’t last long, and she sacrificed her position by returning to England to marry Michael and start a family. She spent the next few years of her life raising her two sons, learning languages, writing books, and following her husband to Tibet, India, and Japan.
Throughout all this time – at Oxford and onwards -, she made sure to stay in touch with her culture as much as she could, by developing research on her father and Burma’s colonial period. She spent a long time studying her country from abroad, because she knew one day she would return. Her husband once said that she always knew that one day she would get a call to claim her legacy, to engage deeply with her country like her father had. Aung San Suu Kyi described her father as “a man who put the interests of the country before his own needs”. Little did she know how well that description would fit her too.
In 1988, due to her mother’s deteriorating health, she got the chance to answer this call as she was forced to return to Myanmar to take care of her. At this point, the southeast Asian country was boiling with political unrest since General Ne Win had brought the country near collapse due to the “Burmese Way to Socialism” he established after the 1962 coup d’état. Through the mass protests and revolts, Suu was able to witness the despair of her people and the general desire for democracy. This allowed her to slowly make her voice heard in support of the Burmese public. Thus, when General Ne Win was forced to resign as a consequence of the massive wave of protests, all attention turned to Suu, mainly due to the absence of her older brother, who had detached from his origins long ago. The daughter of the national hero had arrived, by pure chance, just in time to lead Myanmar’s people into better times.
Regardless of Ne Win’s resignation, the military regime remained in charge of the country in the form of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which operated under Ne Win’s supervision. Meanwhile, Suu became more involved in her country’s politics by meeting with other political leaders, developing plans for a democratic transition, and by giving speeches in the same places where her father had spoken. She became known as “the Lady”, who could bring democracy to Myanmar. Consequently, the protesters became louder and stronger, and the military regime declared martial law to tackle the opposition. A few days later, on September 27th of 1988, she formed the National League for Democracy, the party with which she would become the leader of Myanmar.
Even before Suu was born, she carried the pressure of her family’s legacy in the fight for her country. As she grew and she educated herself, she became more interested in the events that had led her country from hopeful independence to a devastated militarized state. And as Myanmar approached the brink of collapse, she arose as the only ray of hope for her people.
Sacrifices of a Martyr: The House Arrest Saga
Once the NLD was formed, Suu and her supporters started campaigning for promised elections, and the military regime agreed to make some concessions to appease the protesters, but as she dared to verbally attack Ne Win in a public speech in 1989, the regime became more aggressive against her. In July of 1989, most of NLD’s leaders were arrested and taken to prison while she was forced to remain on house arrest. Her family, too, was stripped of any right to enter the country, and all because the military regime argued that the NLD members had “endangered the state,” according to section 10 (b) of the penal code.
Suu’s house arrest, however, was different from that of her colleagues because the military gave her the option of leaving under the condition that she never came back to the country. It was a difficult decision for Suu, as her husband and children remained in the UK without any possibility of entering Myanmar. Ultimately, she chose to lead her people.
A year after the arrest, Ne Win’s people believed it was safe to hold the so-desired elections; the Burmese people would surely not support imprisoned candidates. Nonetheless, on May 27th, 1990, it was announced that NLD and its allies had won +94% of the votes. It was a double failure for the military because they had relaxed all measures and had allowed the presence of mediators and international media. Despite all this, they announced that due to the lack of a proper constitution, the elections were invalid and that, consequently, SLORC would remain in power until an adequate government was formed. As a response to such injustice, Suu became more isolated and refused to accept any news or gifts from her family and friends, and she submerged herself into the teachings of Buddhism.
While still in house arrest, it was announced that she had been bestowed the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize due to her persistent non-violent fight for democracy and human rights. From that point onwards, she was granted numerous international awards, including the international Simon Bolivar Prize, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Elie Wiesel Award.
After such international and national support, Suu and her colleagues were finally released in July 1995, and even though her mobility remained restricted within Yangon province, she continued her fight for democracy. But it seemed like her good luck had run out. In January 1999 she received news from Oxford that her husband -Michael- had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and that he was in dangerously bad health. Nonetheless, despite enormous international support, she was unable to leave Myanmar and see him one last time, as she knew that the military regime would make sure she would not be able to return.
This remains one of the biggest sacrifices Suu has had to endure in order to fight for democracy and justice in her country, and it truly demonstrates how heavy of a burden her family’s legacy was. When her mother died back in 1988, she had vowed that “as her father and mother had served the people of Burma, so too would she, even until death.” With the loss of Michael, it seemed that her vows were taking shape.
Unfortunately, her burden did not end there. A few months after her husband’s death in 1999, she was imprisoned once again as the military accused her of traveling outside of Yangon. This house arrest lasted until May 2002, but she resurfaced with the same willingness to fight for her convictions as before. However, these same convictions caused an attempt by a pro-junta military group to assassinate her in May 2003, and it resulted in what is known as Depayin Massacre. After such incident, she was imprisoned for seven more years.
From the moment she set foot back in her home country back in 1988, Suu had to endure a series of outstanding sacrifices. Even though she was given ways out, she suffered through them with conviction and strength. This perpetual struggle and exemplar behavior provided her with great international support, and it created a personality cult around her within Myanmar. She became a martyr, a sort of religious figure, as many Burmese “considered her a female bodhisattva, an angel, a divine being.”