AUNG SAN SUU KYI’S SENSE OF DUTY TOWARDS THE PEOPLE OF MYANMAR
"I only ask one thing", Aung San Suu Kyi wrote, "that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them....Sometimes I am beset by fears that circumstances and national considerations might tear us apart just when we are so happy in each other, that separation would be a torment. And yet such fears are so futile and inconsequential: if we love and cherish each other as much as we can while we can, I am sure love and compassion will triumph...."
Rebecca Frayn wrote in The Telegraph: “The journalist Fergal Keane, who has met Suu several times, describes her as having a core of steel. It was the sheer resilience of her moral courage that filled me with awe as I wrote my screenplay for The Lady. The first question many women ask when they hear Suu’s story is how she could have left her children. Kim has said simply: “She did what she had to do.” Suu Kyi herself refuses to be drawn on the subject, though she has conceded that her darkest hours were when “I feared the boys might be needing me”. [Source: Rebecca Frayn, The Telegraph, December 11, 2011 ++]
“The implicit choice that had haunted her throughout those 10 years of marital separation had now become an explicit ultimatum: your country or your family. She was distraught. If she left Burma, they both knew it would mean permanent exile – that everything they had jointly fought for would have been for nothing. Suu would call Michael from the British embassy when she could, and he was adamant that she was not even to consider it.” ++
On how Burma opened here eyes, Suu Kyi said “It’s very different from living in academia in Oxford. We called someone vicious in a review for the Times Literary Supplement . We didn’t know what vicious was.”
Aung San Suu Kyi Returns to Burma
In 1988, after spending most of her life abroad, Aung San Suu Kyi—then a 43-year-old housewife, researcher and mother of two—returned to Burma to take care of her mother who had suffered a stroke. at a time when pro-democracy demonstrations were occurring all over the country. On December 27, 1988, Daw Khin Kyi—Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother died.
Coinciding with Aung San Suu Kyi's return to Burma in 1988, the long-time military leader of Burma and head of the ruling party, General Ne Win, stepped down. Mass demonstrations for democracy followed that event on 8 August 1988 (8–8–88, a day seen as auspicious), which were violently suppressed in what came to be known as the 8888 Uprising. On 26 August 1988, she addressed half a million people at a mass rally in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda in the capital, calling for a democratic government. However in September, a new military junta took power.
On her departure to Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband Michael Aris wrote in Freedom from Fear . "It was a quiet evening in Oxford, like many others, the last day of March 1988. Our sons were already in bed and we were reading when the telephone rang. Suu picked up the phone to learn that her mother had suffered a severe stroke. She put the phone down and at once started to pack. I had a premonition that our lives would change forever."
Aris’s friend Marcus Einfeld said: “When Suu Flew out of London to be with her dying mother in April 1988, Michael Aris had a premonition that their lives were about to change dramatically. He later labeled that moment "a day of reckoning". But nothing could have prepared him for the cataclysmic events that were about to unfold and the turmoil that would consume their family. He was a gentle, private, modest man whose own words say much about his bravery. While Aris was shocked at the speed with which his wife was drafted to the leadership of the Burmese democracy movement, the prospect that she would eventually be drawn to the struggle had been acknowledged from the earliest day of their relationship. In the foreword to the essays to which I have referred, he quoted from one of her early letters to him.” [Source: Justice Marcus Einfeld, an Australia judge and UNICEF official, from a speech at Michael Aris’s funeral]
Aung San Suu and the 1988 Demonstrations
Within weeks of her return to Burma from England, Aung San Suu Kyi was drawn into the popular uprising unrest fuelled by 25 years of corrupt and incompetent military rule. As the daughter of the hero of Burmese independence she became a rallying point for a new student-led democracy uprising.
Rebecca Frayn wrote in The Telegraph: She at once flew to Rangoon for what she thought would be a matter of weeks, only to find a city in turmoil. A series of violent confrontations with the military had brought the country to a standstill, and when she moved into Rangoon Hospital to care for her mother, she found the wards crowded with injured and dying students. Since public meetings were forbidden, the hospital had become the center-point of a leaderless revolution, and word that the great General’s daughter had arrived spread like wildfire. When a delegation of academics asked Suu to head a movement for democracy, she tentatively agreed, thinking that once an election had been held she would be free to return to Oxford again. Only two months earlier she had been a devoted housewife; now she found herself spearheading a mass uprising against a barbaric regime. [Source: Rebecca Frayn, The Telegraph, December 11, 2011]
AFP reported: “In 1988 she saw aspirations for democracy evaporate as soldiers fired on crowds of demonstrators, leaving at least 3,000 dead. Within days she took on a leading role in the pro-democracy movement, petitioning the government to prepare for elections and delivering impassioned speeches to hundreds of thousands of people at Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s most sacred Buddhist site. In September 1988 she helped found the National League for Democracy (NLD), an alliance of 105 opposition parties, and campaigned across Myanmar for peaceful change, mesmerizing crowds with her intelligence, poise and rhetoric. [Source: AFP, May 2009]
At the time of the 1988 crackdown and afterwards, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed rallies all over the country and advocated peaceful resistance. She prefixed her father’s name to hers to make it obvious her relations to Burma’s founder. Aung San Suu Kyi said was not her original intention to become involved in the pro-democracy movement. "I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on. This national crisis, in fact, could be called the second struggle for independence."
Aung San Suu’s Speech at Shwedagon Pagoda
On August 26, 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a half-million people at a mass rally in front of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon and called for a democratic government. The protesters had gathered in front of the west gate of the pagoda, a historic rallying point against colonial rule. In her first public speech, Aung San Suu Kyi gave a vigorous denunciation of the regime and a call for democracy. It instantly thrust her to the forefront of the political opposition.
Min Zin wrote in Foreign Policy, “On Aug 26, 1988, I marched together with my fellow high school students to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon to listen to the historic speech Suu Kyi gave in front of an audience that may have numbered up to a million people. I ended up out there somewhere in the middle, as the never-ending applause and the chanting of political slogans washed over me. At times I even heard her voice, but most of the time it was hard to make her out over the cheers: “Long live Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!” My father was a former student activist who had opposed military dictatorship since the late 1950s. That evening I heard him say: “We’ve found our true leader.” Tears welled up in his eyes. It amazed me. When I met her in person for the first time in the wake of the 1988 military coup, I immediately realised that my father was right. She struck me as a towering figure, an inspirational leader. [Source: Min Zin, Foreign Policy, October 8, 2012]
On December 27, 1988, Daw Khin Kyi—Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother died. The funeral procession drew a huge crowd of supporters, which turns into a peaceful protest against military rule.
Aung San Suu Kyi Helps Form the National League for Democracy
Aung San Suu Kyi helped found the National League for Democracy (NLD following a military coup on September 18, 1988. The new pro-democracy party was launched on September 27, 1988 with Aung San Suu Kyi as general secretary. Aung San Suu Kyi gave numerous speeches calling for freedom and democracy, and political activities continued across the country.
Weeks after her Shwedagon Pagoda speech, Joshua Hammer wrote in The New Yorker, “she joined two disaffected Burmese generals to form the National League for Democracy, and, as the party’s general secretary, she began to travel around the country, holding rallies and calling for elections. “I learned about her ability only when we travelled together up-country,” I was told by Win Htein, a former Burmese Army captain who became her personal assistant. Win Htein took nine journeys with Aung San Suu Kyi to remote areas such as Shan State, a hilly plateau bordering China, Laos, and Thailand, where the regime has been battling ethnic insurgencies for decades. “Wherever she went, people came to her like bees coming to a flower,” he said. “At first, everybody was interested in her because she was the daughter of General Aung San, but when they approached her and asked questions, and she answered them patiently and correctly, you could see that she had a real ability to connect with people.” Khin Maung Swe, a founding member of the N.L.D., who first encountered Aung San Suu Kyi that year, told me, “At the very instant I saw her, I knew ‘She is my leader.’ We admired General Aung San so much, so it was no problem for us to follow her. But she herself proved to be a very courageous, very strong-willed person.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011]
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.
Alarmed by her fearlessness and the support she commanded, the generals placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in July 1989 in Rangoon under martial law that allows for detention without charge or trial for three years. In January 1989, huge crowds of supporters showed up for the funeral of Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother. After that Aung San Suu Kyi started criticizing the brutality of the government. On April 5, 1989 she was place in front of a firing squad and just before they were going to shoot her a senior official stopped them. She was given the choice of staying in Burma under house arrest or leaving and enjoying her freedom. She stayed and continued to campaign for democracy.
On July 20, 1989, a year after the crackdown on student demonstrators, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested during a protest rally and placed under house arrest at her lakeside home on 54 University Avenue. The same day 11 truckloads of armed soldiers showed up in front of the house's gate and cut her phone lines and prevented her from leaving.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the 1990 Elections
Despite her continuing detention, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in the general elections on May 27, 1990.The NLD received 59 percent of the vote and 80 percent of the parliament seats. Some claim that Aung San Suu Kyi would have assumed the office of Prime Minister; in fact, however, as she was not permitted, she did not stand as a candidate in the elections (although being a MP is not a strict prerequisite for becoming PM in most parliamentary systems).
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. Aung San Suu Kyi has said she would refuse to do anything that would compromise the pro-democracy movement. She told the Los Angeles Times, "We won the election in 1990 because the people wanted democracy. It was not because of me."
The dictatorship never recognised the results of the election, and refused to hand over power. The results were nullified, resulting in an international outcry.
Aung San Suu Kyi and Democracy
“With 7 million votes for the [party] in 1990," Aung San Suu Kyi told the Washington Post in November 1995, "the views of the people are very clear. There wasn't a constitution that will defend their basic rights...The country was a democracy once, and our situation then was very much better than it is now. The Burmese people are disciplined and receptive if you explain what is wanted of them and why.”
In one speech in front of her home she told a crowd of several thousand: "If we had democracy tomorrow, we would still have problems. It's just that we could talk about them openly. Security for our children will not come overnight with democracy. But we certainly won't have to worry about the knock on the door in the middle of the night."
Aung San Suu Kyi said: “For me the revolution means change, either physical or spiritual or intellectual. It starts in the mind....and it has to come from the people first. I am immensely touched and honored by the trust that they have in me. But they have to understand that I am not the one who is going to bring change. They are the ones who are going to help me bring about change.”
Aung San Suu Kyi was influenced by both Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence and Buddhist concepts about resistance and transcendence. She once said, "Engaging in Buddhism is active compassion."
One of her most famous speeches, Freedom From Fear, began: "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." She has said: “real freedom is freedom from fear, and unless you can live free from fear you cannot live a dignified human life. She also believes fear spurs many world leaders to lose sight of their purpose. "Government leaders are amazing", she once said. "So often it seems they are the last to know what the people want."
Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. In a statement that accompanied the prize, the Nobel selection committee commended her for "her unflagging efforts to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights, and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means." She was lauded as "one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades.”
Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest when she won the Nobel prize and she learned about the award from a BBC broadcast. "I felt tremendous humility and tremendous gratitude," she later told the New York Times after she heard the news. "I was very grateful. The prize meant that the whole movement for democracy will receive a lot more recognition."While she was in prison 30 Nobel laureates called for her release.
Aung San Suu Kyi was unable to attend the ceremony in which the prizes were given out. Her sons Alexander and Kim accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf. Aung San Suu Kyi used the Nobel Peace Prize's $1.3 million prize money to establish a health and education trust for the Burmese people. Around this time, Suu Kyi chose non-violence as an expedient political tactic. Later she said, "I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons," however, nonviolent action as well as civil resistance in lieu of armed conflict are also political tactics in keeping with the overall philosophy of her Theravada Buddhist religion.
When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest, her husband Michael Aris said: "I was informed today that my dear wife Suu has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize ... It is my earnest hope and prayer that the Peace Prize will somehow lead to what she has always strived for - a process of dialogue aimed at achieving lasting peace in her country. Selfishly, I also hope our family's situation will be eased as a result of this supreme gesture of recognition for her moral and physical courage, and that we may at last be allowed to pay her visits again. We miss her very much." The Burmese Embassy in London responded by informing Dr. Aris that his sons' Burmese nationality had been withdrawn, and that they were refused visas on their British passports.
On her reaction when she had been awarded the peace prize, she said in Oslo in 2012, "I heard the news on the radio one evening. I've tried very hard to remember what my immediate reaction to the announcement of the award had been. I think it was something like: 'Oh … so they've decided to give it to me'...It did not seem quite real because in a sense I did not feel myself to be quite real at that time. Often during my days of house arrest it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world. There was the house which was my world, there was the world of others who also were not free but were together in prison as a community, and there was the world of the free; each was a different planet pursuing its own separate course in an indifferent universe.
"What the Nobel peace prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me. This did not happen instantly, of course, but as the days and months went by, and news of reactions to the award came over the airwaves, I began to understand the significance of the Nobel prize. It had made me real once again. What was more important, the prize had drawn the attention of the world to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. We were not going to be forgotten. When the Nobel committee awarded the peace prize to me, they were recognising that the oppressed and the isolated in Burma were also a part of the world, they were recognising the oneness of humanity … The Nobel peace prize opened up a door in my heart."
Efforts by the Myanmar Military Regime to Undermine Aung San Suu Kyi
Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “Over the years, the regime had tried to kill her at least once (in 2003), labelled her a “genocidal prostitute,” and denied her husband’s desperate requests to visit her before his death, from prostate cancer, in 1999.”
The generals tried to undermine Aung San Suu Kyi's legitimacy as political leader in Myanmar by questioning her patriotism and loyalty and have said she is being manipulated by the Burmese Communists. They pointed out she married a foreigner lived most of her life abroad. Gen. Khin Nyunt told the New York Times, "She left the country when she was 14. And after those years she would come here every year for three or four days, not more than a week, and apart from that she has been living all those years outside the country...She is married to Michael Aris, a British citizen; her two sons are British citizens."In 1997, the government took one-kyat banknote out of circulation because the watermark image of national hero Aung San was considered too feminine, and thus an allusion to his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi. Pro-democracy demonstrator used to wave the banknotes at rallies. The designer of the banknote was reportedly jailed.
In the 1990s and 2000s Aung San Suu Kyi's face rarely appeared on television or in newspapers. Newspaper articles written under pseudonyms criticized her and referred to her as "that girl," a "political stunt princess," "Western fashion girl," and an "ax-handle of the neo-colonialists." As proof of their allegation they presented her marriage to Aris. An editorial in a state-owned newspaper urging Aung San Suu Kyi return to London said: "Ma Suu please go back. Democracy does not mean power." Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic, “Over the years cartoons in the state-run media have depicted the elegant Lady as an evil ogre with fangs, feeding on Western handouts. When the NLD issued a statement in February defending Western sanctions against the regime, an editorial in an official newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, warned that Suu Kyi and her party would "meet their tragic ends."
Lieut. Gen. Khin Nyunt told the New York Times that Aung San Suu Kyi's attitude is "negative and counterproductive...From what we see her supporters are only from outside Myanmar. She has been portrayed as great leader of the country basically by groups outside the country...Our impression is that she doesn't think much of us and so I think that she doesn't want to be serious.”
Nevertheless, when taking about Aung San Suu Kyi, Gen. Khin Nyunt used the honorific title "Daw." "We still feel that she is our sister," he told the New York Times. "We have no animosity or hatred towards her...We deeply respect her father, General Aung San, but can you expect us to respect her only because she is his daughter. " He claimed that she's is used as "a front" by the Burmese communists. Another general said "we have a special attachment to her because she is the daughter of out national hero."
Aung San Suu Kyi and Than Shwe
Than Shwe was strongly opposed to negotiations with Aung San Suu Kyi and was said to despise her sp vehemently that his aides were forbidden to mention her name in his presence. But it wasn’t always that way. In the 1990s it was reported that Suu Kyi liked Than Shwe. The decision to release Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995 was reportedly made by Than Shwe. "He was the sole person to decide," one officer told Time. "Once his decisions are made, the rest of the bureaucracy was bound to follow." Suu Kyi and Than Shwe talked with each other only when she has been in detention. They met only once before 2008: in 2002. The talks quickly broke down.
Joshua Hammer received in Smithsonian magazine, Than Shwe “harbored a deep antipathy toward her, and even reportedly used black magic rituals against her.” “I don’t want to portray [Than Shwe] as a brutal, mindless personality, because I don’t know him well enough,” Aung San Suu Kyi said.“I felt...intense irritation and impatience. I listened to the radio every day for many hours, so I knew what was going on in Burma, the economic problems, the poverty, so many things that needed to be rectified...I thought, ‘Why are we wasting our time?’” Then she would turn to meditation and “24 hours later . . . those feelings would subside.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, September 2012]
Win Htein, Aung San Suu Kyi’s former personal assistant, who came to know Than Shwe when they served together in the Burmese Army in the 1960s and 70s told The New Yorker: “In 1994, there was a meeting with him and Aung San Suu Kyi. She asked me what was my opinion of her meeting him. And I told her, ‘That is nonsense. Nothing will come of it. I know them.’ I said, ‘I know their mentality.’ ” [Source: Joshua Hammer, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011]
In a 2005 meeting between then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Than Shwe in Jakarta, Indonesia, Annan mentioned her name. "The generals and staff all closed their notebooks, stood in unison and walked out the door," said Steve Stedman, the then-assistant secretary-general, who was at the meeting, told the Los Angeles Times. "It was one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen and left me thinking that these people really are out of touch with the rest of the world." [Source: Maggie Farley, Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2008]
Aung San Suu Kyi, Politics and Support of the Burmese People
Aung San Suu Kyi has often said that would rather be a writer than a political leader "but once I had committed myself then...there cannot be any half measures." In the 1990s she said, "A life of politics has no attraction for me. At the moment I serve as a kind of unifying force because of my father's name and because I am not interested in jostling for any kind of position." One reason why Aung San Suu Kyi has become the focus of the pro-democracy movement is that she avoided the bitter infighting which fractured the democracy movement by being out of the country in the 1970s and 80s.
"I'm not interested in any sort of personality cult or personality politics," Aung San Suu Kyi told the New York Times. "This is what you've got avoid from the beginning. We want to see a democracy based on social principals, not on personality." "When I first went out campaigning," she said, "a very, very old abbot—he was over 90—gave me two bits of advise. The first was to get happiness, you have invest in suffering. The second is that if you want to indulge in honest politics, you've got to be prepared to be reviled and attacked. He was right."
The people of Myanmar have rallied around Aung San Suu Kyi. Taxi drivers displayed pictures of her on their sun visors. Ordinary citizens hid pictures of her under their counters. Shopowners in the Shan State discretely sold T-shirts with a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi on the front and her quote, "Fear is Habit. I am not afraid" on the back. Monks in Mandalay refer to her as "or national heroine." A secretary in Yangon told Newsweek, "We want her to know that we all know how she suffered and that we all we are all behind her."
On her experience with a taxi driver, Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “ Inside a taxi As we lurched into motion, he showed us where he stood by reaching into his shirt pocket and pulling out a laminated picture. It was, of course, of the Lady...She is always carried in the hearts — and her image in the pockets, lockets and secret hiding places — of millions of Burmese. Among the most oppressed and impoverished people on the planet, they draw sustenance from this graceful woman who, armed only with the principle of nonviolent resistance, dares to stand up to the generals. "We think our leader is the ideal woman, not just for Burma but for the whole world," says Aye Aye Nyein, a teacher and member of the NLD's youth wing. "We Burmese live in a prison. She teaches us how to fight for our freedom." [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, December 29, 2010]
Aung San Suu Kyi and Sanctions
Aung San Suu Kyi supported the sanctions by the U.S. and other government against Myanmar She said, “We object to invest now because...we don’t think this is the right time for investing. The real benefits of investing now go to the military regime and their connections. They go to just a small privileged elite. And the people get very little. The trickle-own effect is such a tiny trickle that is disappears by the time it gets down to the lower level.
Hannah Beech wrote in Time, Although Suu Kyi's moral imprimatur helped bring Western sanctions against the regime, the fact that many ordinary Burmese also feel their effects hasn't escaped her. "I am ready to reconsider my support of sanctions if it's for the benefit of all of us," she told me with surprising vehemence, countering critics who think her too unyielding. "I'm not afraid to consider change." Her openness acknowledges the “growing recognition that sanctions on Burma, despite their moral appeal, have not worked.” [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, December 29, 2010]
Martin Petty of Reuters wrote: “Suu Kyi previously called for the sanctions but has changed her stance in recent years. She sent a letter last year to the country's paramount leader, Than Shwe, offering to help lift sanctions, but the junta dismissed her gesture as "insincere". [Source: Martin Petty, Reuters, November 19, 2010]
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014