Burma: State of Fear
AIRS ON PBS OCTOBER 31, 2006 | CHECK LISTINGS arrow

PROFILE Pro-Democracy Leader Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi

“It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle; to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths; to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear.”
- Aung San Suu Kyi
from her 1991 book, Freedom From Fear

By Singeli Agnew

This month, Aung San Suu Kyi spent her 4,000th day under house arrest in her compound in Rangoon. Although the world has not heard from her in three years, her power -- as a symbol of freedom and democracy for the people of Burma -- has only grown during her long years in forced isolation.

Her persistence and quiet courage have inspired years of sustained opposition to the military regime. "Free men," Aung San Suu Kyi said in her book, Freedom from Fear, "are the oppressed who go on trying."

Aung San Suu Kyi as a child, with her family
Then two-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi, center, is seen with her parents Aung San, the Burmese independence leader, mother Daw Khin Kyi, and two brothers in 1947. (PHOTO: AP-Photo/Kyodo)

Timing, fate and a seemingly predestined ability as a leader have put Suu Kyi at the center of Burma’s political struggles. When Suu Kyi was born in 1945, her country was in the midst of a struggle for independence after alternating between British and Japanese rule. Her father, Gen. Aung San, was hailed as a hero of the movement but was assassinated by a political rival in July 1947, during the transition to independence. Aung San Suu Kyi was only 2 years old.

In 1960, her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, also a prominent public figure, was appointed Burma's ambassador to Delhi, and Suu Kyi left Burma. Two years later, the military seized control of the country, nationalizing the economy, banning independent newspapers and pushing Burma into political isolation.

In 1964 Suu Kyi moved to Britain to study philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford. Several years later, she moved to New York, where she did graduate studies, worked with the United Nations and volunteered at a hospital. In 1972, Suu Kyi married Michael Aris, a Himalayan scholar she met in Oxford. In a prescient vow, Aris promised Suu Kyi that he would not get in the way of her duty to her country. They both knew that Burma might soon call her back.

The couple moved to Bhutan, where Aris tutored the royal family and headed the translation department. After returning to Oxford, they had two sons, Alexander and Kim. Suu Kyi began writing a biography of her father, busied herself with mothering and helped Aris with his Himalayan studies.

Then, in 1988, Suu Kyi received word that her mother had suffered a severe stroke and didn’t have long to live. She returned to Burma the next day.

At the same time, the seams had burst on the Burmese tolerance of authoritarian rule. For two decades, their society had been tightly closed and controlled, while the economy spiraled downward. Thousands of students and workers took to the streets, demanding democratic reform. The Burmese army opened fire on demonstrators, and thousands were killed. As she cared for her mother in her family home, Suu Kyi was drawn into the firestorm.

"I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on," Suu Kyi said in a speech in Rangoon on 26 August 1988.

She was soon leading a revolt against the dictator, Gen. Ne Win, organizing rallies and traveling the country with a call for democratic reform and free elections. Her political career had begun.

In January 1989, Suu Kyi’s mother died. After a huge funeral procession, Suu Kyi vowed that -- like her parents -- she, too, would serve the people of Burma, unafraid of death. In a famous moment in the Irrawaddy Delta, Suu Kyi bravely defied the military, walking past soldiers with their rifles drawn. She was soon placed under house arrest, without trial or charge.

In 1990, in a rare act of concession, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) held the first free elections in 30 years. To its surprise, Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won more than 60 percent of the vote and more than 80 percent of the parliamentary seats. But the junta refused to recognize the election results and tightened its grip on the country.

Suu Kyi, still under house arrest, continued to provide inspiration to her followers. In 1991, she received the Nobel Peace Prize for being -- as Francis Sejested, chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, said -- "an outstanding example of the power of the powerless."

Her son, Alexander, accepted the prize for her. “The lonely struggle taking place in a heavily guarded compound in Rangoon,” said Alexander in his acceptance speech, “is part of the much larger struggle, worldwide, for the emancipation of the human spirit from political tyranny and psychological subjection.”

In 1995 Suu Kyi was released, after sustained political pressure from the international community. She immediately plunged into political organizing again. In 1999, her husband, then in England, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Suu Kyi knew that, if she left the country to visit him, the government (which urged her to go to England) would never let her back in to the country. Aris tried to come to Burma to see her one last time but was denied permission. He died in March 2000, not having seen his wife in years.

In 2000, Suu Kyi was again locked into the house she knew so well, having broken the terms of her release and attempted to travel outside Rangoon to attend political meetings. In 2002, she was released. Thousands of cheering supporters welcomed her outside her home. But the freedom was short-lived, and Suu Kyi was detained again in 2003 for her continued political activity. The latest detention has been indefinitely extended, despite appeals from U.N. Secretary Gen. Kofi Annan.

"I am relying on you, General Than Shwe, to do the right thing," Annan said, addressing the military leader in May of this year. The plea fell on deaf ears: Suu Kyi’s peaceful words proved too dangerous to their military grip on the country.

Suu Kyi, now 60, spends much of her time in meditation. Her children have grown up, mostly without her presence. At every chance, she continues to speak out against the military government and its human rights abuses. She has requested tourists not to visit her country and has discouraged international investment in the country.

“The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit,” said Suu Kyi in her 1991 book, Freedom From Fear. “It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle; to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths; to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear.”

SOURCES: BBC; NobelPrize.Org; Columbia University East Asian Studies; Dassk.org; Irrawaddy news magazine; Open Society Institute; New Internationalist

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