‘The Lady’ has been fighting for the democratization of her home country, Myanmar, for decades. Though it was never certain that she would live to see the fruits of her labor, Aung San Suu Kyi never gave up.
When Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights, as well as for being one of “the most extraordinary examples” of civil courage, the junta in Myanmar said she could leave the country.
However, she did not know if she would be allowed to return to her country and chose to stay behind. Her husband, Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibetan culture, and their two sons travelled to Oslo to receive the prize instead.
In his thank you speech, their eldest son Alexander Aris referred to a message his mother had written on the occasion of being awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought a year earlier.
“It is not power that corrupts but fear,” Aung San Suu Kyi wrote in “Freedom from Fear.”
“Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
A Theravada Buddhist, she referred to spiritual concepts, to Mahatma Gandhi and ancient Indian philosophy to outline her own beliefs, saying that corruption and violence could only be overcome if people accepted responsibility for the needs of others.
“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,” she wrote.
“Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure.”
Instead of “a revolution which aims at changing official policies and institutions,” Aung San Suu Kyi called for a “revolution of the spirit,” without which “the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration.”
“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,” she said.
On 26 August 1988, in her first public speech in the capital Yangon she had explained that she had a sense of duty: “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on.”
General Aung San was assassinated by rivals in 1947 after having led Myanmar to independence. He remains a national hero today.
After his death, his wife Khin Kyi served as a member of parliament in the country’s first post-independent government from 1947 to 1948, representing Rangoon’s Lanmadaw Township, the constituency her husband had won. In 1960, she was appointed Ambassador to India.
Aung San Suu Kyi was also politically active during her studies in Oxford but had no inkling then that she would become the icon of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement.
She returned to Yangon to look after her ailing mother in 1988 and soon became the head of the country’s opposition after General Ne Win stepped down, over two decades after taking power in a coup.
Aung San Suu Kyi found herself at the head of the opposition. In her speech in August 1988, she called for multi-party democracy before a crowd of half a million in Yangon.
However, the military soon cracked down on what became known as the 8888 Uprising in which thousands of protesters were killed or jailed.
Two years later, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the general elections called by the junta by a landslide. The results were nullified and the junta set about arresting opponents. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.
In 1995, she saw her husband for the last time. He was not given permission to enter Myanmar when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1997. The junta hoped instead that Aung San Suu Kyi would leave but she was still reluctant to do so, fearing that she would not be allowed to return.
She was finally released from house arrest in November 2010. The country has since been undergoing a political transformation under President Thein Sein, a former general who came to power in 2011.
Observers hope Aung San Suu Kyi will get the chance to apply her principles of non-violence and responsibility to concrete politics.
She has just left Myanmar to go on an international tour and is due to accept her Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in person – better 20 years late than never.
Author: Rodion Ebbighausen / act
Editor: Sarah Berning