Aung San Suu Kyi – Profile

Aung San Suu Kyi

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.”

In 2016, this Nobel Prize winner became the State Counselor of Myanmar, 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 of November 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. 

  After she became head of government, the power struggle against the dangerous military interference –strongly protected by a rigged constitution– 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 faced rising international pressure regarding its human rights record, and the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country hard, Suu Kyi largely disappointed the high expectations that the international community had for her. 

Although Aung San Suu Kyi fell off her pedestal in the eyes of the international community, this was not the case domestically, and, in fact, she was re-elected in the November 2020 elections. Threatened by her landslide victory, however, General Hlaing and the army began discrediting the elections and claiming election fraud. This culminated in February 2021 when Hlaing brought Myanmar back to military rule, arresting Suu Kyi in a coup d’état. With a sentence of six years in prison, and considering her age and health, it seems unlikely that her influential figure will make a return to the political stage of Myanmar.

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 greatly 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 due to his convictions and achievements. In another tragedy, Suu Kyi also lost her younger brother at a young age when he drowned in their house’s lake. 

In addition to her father’s public service, Suu Kyi’s mother was a Burmese diplomat, who, after her husband’s murder, was made the first female ambassador of the country and was sent to India. And so, at the age of 15, Aung San Suu Kyi 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.

As she grew older, and following her family’s footsteps, she graduated with a Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree from St Hugh’s College, as well as continued to pursue a Master’s degree 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 as she sacrificed her position by returning to England to marry Michael and start a family. She spends the next few years of her life raising her two sons, learning languages, writing books and following her husband’s lead 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. Aung San Suu Kyi 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.

Ultimately, due to her mother’s deteriorating health, Suu is forced to return to Myanmar in 1988 to take care of her. At this point in time, 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 Kyi was able to witness the despair of her people and the general desire for democracy, and she slowly made 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 -and in the absence of her older brother (who had completely detached himself from his origins by moving to the United States at a young age)- all attention turned to her. 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 giving speeches in iconic places where her father had spoken. 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, Suu formed  the National League for Democracy, the party with which she would become leader of Myanmar; and which is well known by a red and golden peacock flag.

Even before Aung San Suu Kyi 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.

The House Arrest Saga

Once the NLD was formed, Suu and her supporters started campaigning for promised elections, and the military regime was forced to make some concessions in order to appease the protesters. However, as she became more confident and verbally attacked Ne Win during a public speech in June 1989, the regime took a much more aggressive stance. In July of 1989, most of NLD’s leaders were arrested and taken to prison, while Suu was forced to remain in house arrest and her family was stripped of any right to return to the country. The regime argued they 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 run the so-desired elections; the Burmese people would surely not support imprisoned candidates. Nonetheless, on May 27th 1990 it was announced that the NLD and its allies had won over 94% of the votes. It was a double failure for the military as they had relaxed all measures and had allowed the presence of mediators and international media. Despite all this, the military announced that due to the lack of a proper constitution the elections were invalid and that, consequently, SLORC would remain in power until a proper government was formed. As a response to such injustice, Suu became more isolated and refused to accept any news or goods from her family and friends as she submerged herself into the teachings of Buddhism.  

While still under house arrest, it was announced that Suu Kyi 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 pressure, Suu and her colleagues were finally released in July,  1995, and even though her mobility remained restricted within Yangon province, Suu Kyi continued her fight for democracy. Unfortunately, it seemed like her good luck had run out. In January, 1999 Aung San Suu Kyi received news from Oxford that Michael had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and that he did not have much time left. But, 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. As 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, Suu Kyi was imprisoned once again as the military accused her of traveling outside of Yangon. This house arrest lasted until May 2002, and 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, resulting  in what is known as Deyapin Massacre. After such an incident, Suu Kyi was imprisoned for seven more years.

From the moment she set foot in her home country back in 1988, Suu had to endure a series of outstanding sacrifices, and even though she was given ways out, she suffered through them with conviction and strength. This perpetual struggle and exemplary behavior provided Suu Kyi with great international support, and it created a personality cult around her within Myanmar. Suu became a martyr, a sort of religious figure as many Burmese “considered her a female bodhisattva, an angel, a divine being.”

The Fall of an Idol

Once Aung San Suu Kyi was finally allowed to take on a position of power, the population of Myanmar as well as the international community had very high expectations for Suu Kyi to democratize the country, as well as to end ethnic conflict and allow ethnic minorities the autonomy she had promised them upon being elected. Not only did Suu Kyi fail to address and end the violence against the Rohingya minority, but also, in 2019, she defended the military’s brutal actions against the minority in front of the International Court of Justice in The Hague; forever compromising her international reputation as an inspiring activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. 

Under her leadership, Myanmar made little steps towards ethnic and religious integration nor the promotion of democratic values. For example, Suu promoted Buddhist-nationalism by passing controversial legislation like the 2015 “Protection of Race and Religious Bills.” Additionally, Suu Kyi faced criticism for prosecuting journalists and activists, applying the same coercive methods as the military against her own opposition. Finally, Suu Kyi’s economic policies failed to improve the economic situation of Myanmar, much less the environmental situation as Suu Kyi ignored pleas for environmental-reforms. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic further exposed the absence of efficient leadership. 

Suu Kyi fell off from her pedestal in the eyes of the international community and became, instead, an enigma to the outside world. Some have accused her of being corrupted by power, crediting Suu Kyi’s “betrayal” of her previous liberal democratic ideas to political interests once she was in power. Others argue that the West had overly idealized Suu and her actions after 2015 simply show that she was more of a political realist. In fact, it is important to acknowledge the different cultural values and interpretations of human rights and democracy in Myanmar in comparison to the traditional Western views of these concepts. This is particularly evident in the fact that Suu Kyi continued to enjoy  unconditional support from a vast national majority who still consider her a female bodhisattva, or a mother that constantly sacrifices for her children. 

Moreover, it is important to remember that Suu Kyi has also been the victim of a repressive system meaning her actions were likely due to fear of possible reprisal by the military junta who could, at any point, declare a state of emergency and take control over the legislative, executive and judiciary powers. The 2008 Constitution, amended by the junta, limits what any elected government can do as any constitutional amendment requires three-quarters of parliament’s votes plus one  (and the military holds one quarter of parliamentary seats by constitution). Eventually allowing Suu Kyi to hold this position of power was part of the junta’s strategic roadmap to allegedly democratize the country but, in reality, deepen their influence in the political system. In other words, although Suu Kyi took on a position of power, she never really had much power to govern.

As a result, in February 2021, the dream of a democratic Myanmar shattered again when – after being re-elected during elections in November 2020 –  the military carried out a coup d’état and arrested Suu Kyi based on claims of electoral fraud. Suu Kyi was also charged with illegally importing and possessing six walkie-talkie radios, as well as violating a Natural Disaster Management Law by staging a campaign rally during the coronavirus pandemic. After postponing her trial multiple times due to reasons such as “internet issues” or the pandemic, in December 2021 she was sentenced to two years in prison. And in January 2022, she was sentenced to an additional four years on additional charges. Suu Kyi was the face of democracy in Myanmar. Now the struggle for democracy in Myanmar goes on with her once again hidden from the public as she has been permanently sidelined by the junta; leaving space for younger voices and new groups to rise in her ashes.  


The shared Account of RAIA members and Alumni