Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, has come to symbolise the struggle of Burma’s people to be free.
She has spent more than 15 years in detention, most of it under house arrest. She was released from her current third period of detention on Saturday 13th November 2010.
However, there are still more than 2,200 political prisoners in Burma and none of the repressive laws allowing the dictatorship to detain people without trial and restrict other freedoms have been repealed following the sham election on 7 November or under the new constitution.
“My release should not be looked at as a major breakthrough for democracy. For all people in Burma to enjoy basic freedom - that would be the major breakthrough.”
Aung San Suu Kyi speaking after her release in 2002.
Aung San Suu Kyi was born on June 19th, 1945, daughter of Burma’s independence hero, Aung San, who was assassinated when she was only two years old.
Aung San Suu Kyi was educated in Burma, India, and the United Kingdom. While studying at Oxford University, she met Michael Aris, a Tibet scholar who she married in 1972. They had two sons, Alexander and Kim.
Return to Burma
Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 to nurse her dying mother, and soon became engaged in the country’s nationwide democracy uprising. The military regime responded to the uprising with brute force, killing up to 5,000 demonstrators on 8th August 1988.
Following a military coup on 18th September 1988, on 24th September 1988 a new pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy, was formed. Aung San Suu Kyi was appointed General Secretary. Aung San Suu Kyi gave numerous speeches calling for freedom and democracy, and political activities continued across the country.
Facing increasing domestic and international pressure, the dictatorship was forced to call a general election, held in 1990.
As Aung San Suu Kyi began to campaign for the NLD, she and many others were detained by the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi was banned from personally standing in the election. Despite conditions around the elections being far from free and fair with Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy activists being detained, biased media, and intimidation of politicians, the voting on the day was relatively free and fair. The NLD won a staggering 82% of the seats in Parliament. The dictatorship never recognised the results of the election, and refused to hand over power.
Released For Five Years
Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest until July 1995. When released she faced restrictions on travel.
On March 27 1999, Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband, Michael Aris, died of cancer in London. He had petitioned the Burmese authorities to allow him to visit Aung San Suu Kyi one last time, but they had rejected his request. He had not seen her since a Christmas visit in 1995. The government always urged Aung San Suu Kyi to join her family abroad, but she knew that she would not be allowed to return to Burma.
In 2000 Aung San Suu Kyi was again placed under house arrest after repeated attempts to leave the capital, Rangoon, to hold political meetings in other parts of the country.
In 2002, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and with freedom to travel around the country. The release was part of a deal negotiated by UN Envoy on Burma, Razali Ismail. He had facilitated secret meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military. Confidence building steps had been agreed, including that the dictatorship would stop the vehement attacks on Aung San Suu Kyi in the media, and the NLD would stop publicly calling for sanctions, although its policy of still supporting targeted economic sanctions remained. However, when it came to move from confidence building meetings, and instead start dealing with matters of substance, the dictatorship refused to engage in any meaningful dialogue. As a low-level envoy without significant political backing from the UN itself or the international community, Razali was unable to persuade the Generals to move the dialogue forward.
After waiting patiently, Aung San Suu Kyi began to travel the country, holding meetings at which tens of thousands of people turned out to see her, dashing the hopes of the Generals that during her long period of detention the people would have forgotten her, and her support would have waned.
The dictatorship began using members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association to harass and attack NLD meetings. This political militia was set up and organised by the military, with Than Shwe, dictator of Burma, as its President. It later transformed as the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the political party front for the military in the elections held on 7th November 2010.
On May 30th 2003 members of the USDA attacked a convoy of vehicles Aung San Suu Kyi was travelling in. It was an attempt by the dictatorship to assassinate Aung San Suu Kyi, using a civilian front so as not to take the blame. Aung San Suu Kyi’s driver managed to drive her to safety, but more than 70 of Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters were beaten to death. The attack became known at the Depayin Massacre. The dictatorship claimed it was a riot between two political groups, incited by the NLD. The United Nations General Assembly called for the incident to be investigated, but it never was.
Following the attack, Aung San Suu Kyi was held in detention, and then placed back under house arrest. She has been detained ever since.
During her current period of detention, conditions have been much stricter than in the past. Her phone line has been cut, her post is stopped and National League for Democracy volunteers providing security at her compound were removed in December 2004.
Diplomats are generally not allowed to meet her, although occasionally UN envoys and US government officials have been allowed to meet her. However, even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was not allowed to meet her when he visited the country in 2009.
In May 2009, just days before her period of house arrest was due to expire, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested and charged with breaking the terms of her house arrest, which forbids visitors, after John Yettaw, a United States citizen, swam across Inya lake and refused to leave her house. In August 2009 she was convicted, and sentenced to three years imprisonment. In an apparent attempt to placate international outrage about the trial, the sentence was reduced to 18 months under house arrest. By coincidence, this meant her release date turned out to be just 6 days after elections held in Burma, thereby ensuring that once again she was in detention during elections.
Aung San Suu Kyi has won numerous international awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament and the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom. She has called on people around the world to join the struggle for freedom in Burma, saying “Please use your liberty to promote ours.”
Source: Burma Campaign UK: http://www.burmacampaign.org.uk/index.php/burma/about-burma/about-burma/a-biography-of-aung-san-suu-kyi
Writings and Speeches
Excerpt from famous Freedom from Fear Speech: 1990
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. Most Burmese are familiar with the four a-gati, the four kinds of corruption. Chanda-gati, corruption induced by desire, is deviation from the right path in pursuit of bribes or for the sake of those one loves. Dosa-gati is taking the wrong path to spite those against whom one bears ill will, and moga-gati is aberration due to ignorance. But perhaps the worst of the four is bhaya-gati, for not only does bhaya, fear, stifle and slowly destroy all sense of right and wrong, it so often lies at the root of the other three kinds of corruption. Just as chanda-gati, when not the result of sheer avarice, can be caused by fear of want or fear of losing the goodwill of those one loves, so fear of being surpassed, humiliated or injured in some way can provide the impetus for ill will. And it would be difficult to dispel ignorance unless there is freedom to pursue the truth unfettered by fear. With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched...
The students were protesting not just against the death of their comrades but against the denial of their right to life by a totalitarian regime which deprived the present of meaningfulness and held out no hope for the future. And because the students' protests articulated the frustrations of the people at large, the demonstrations quickly grew into a nationwide movement. Some of its keenest supporters were businessmen who had developed the skills and the contacts necessary not only to survive but to prosper within the system. But their affluence offered them no genuine sense of security or fulfillment, and they could not but see that if they and their fellow citizens, regardless of economic status, were to achieve a worthwhile existence, an accountable administration was at least a necessary if not a sufficient condition. The people of Burma had wearied of a precarious state of passive apprehension where they were 'as water in the cupped hands' of the powers that be...”
Comments at celebration of the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. October 1995
“Today we celebrate, the ‘great soul’ who demonstrated to the world the supremacy of moral force over force based on the might of arms or empire...The life and works of Gandhiji, as I was taught to refer to him even as a child, are both thought provoking and inspiring for those who wish to reach a righteous goal by righteous means.....The way of democracy is to create mutual trust and understanding through free and open discussion and debate. It is by this way that we can learn to settle our differences without resorting to compulsion or violence and to weld unity out of the diversity that is the wonder of our human world. People may be compelled to act against their inclinations, they may be bribed to set aside their conscience. But they cannot be forced to give their hearts and minds to any cause that they do not truly believe to be worthwhile.”
On the Non-Violent Approach
Video tape message sent to a press conference held in UN Human Rights Commission. April, 1996
“There are those who argue that the concept of human rights is not applicable to all cultures. We in the National League for Democracy believe that human rights are of universal relevance. But even those who do not believe in human rights must certainly agree that the rule of law is most important. Without the rule of law there can be no peace, either in a nation, a region, or in throughout the world. In Burma at the moment there is no rule of law. Unless there is the rule of law there can be no peace or justice in this country...”