‘Who is this woman?’ I remember wondering. I was not aware of this modern-day freedom fighter then but I made it a goal to find out – and what I learned inspired me. Daw Suu Kyi is a woman who received vocal support from countries all over the world - including the United States, South America, Europe, Australia, India, Israel, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, Bangladesh, the Maldives, the Phillipines, and South Korea, among others. Daw Suu Kyi’s plight almost got Burma expelled from ASEAN – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - if Burma did not release her. She has also sparked extensive debate on nationalism, democracy, and human rights.
Admiration for her struggle saw her being made an honorary citizen of Canada in 2007. And the list does not end there. She was awarded the Gold Congressional Medal by the US Congress, the Rafto Prize from Norway, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from Europe, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding from India, and the International Simon Bolivar Prize from Venezuela, among many other awards.
Perhaps the highest recognition of her work is the Nobel Peace Prize which she won in 1991.
All of these awards were won during her incarceration.
I was blown away by this woman, not just because of the many feats she has achieved (I must emphasize here that these were achieved even WHILE she was imprisoned) but because of her sheer courage, determination, resilience, and perseverance. Her unwavering sense of patriotism and nationalism heavily impressed me, a mere adolescent then, and led me to write a piece on her which was published at a leading local socio-political website on the 8th of August 2009 marking the 21st anniversary of the famous 8888 Uprising - a series of nationwide pro-democracy protests in Burma.
That write-up was one of my first articles published and it garnered great support from the online community. The article was neither innovative nor ground-breaking but it was a major stepping stone in my stint, so far, as a writer and gave me a much-needed boost to expand from writing as a hobby to freelancing as a writer.
Perhaps that is why I keep gravitating back towards Daw Suu Kyi – because I have good memories attached to an article inspired by her. Perhaps it is because I find her ideals of true democracy and respect for human rights similar to those of my own. Perhaps it is because Daw Suu Kyi dared to dream and turn those dreams into reality. Perhaps it is because her deeds inspire young dreamers and idealists like myself to dream and (as cheesy as it sounds) make this world a better place.
Or perhaps there is more. Why do so many people around the world look up to her? Why is she such a globally recognized inspirational figure? To answer these questions we would have to understand who Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is.
Born to General Aung San and Khin Kyi, Daw Suu Kyi was brought up in a politically vibrant household. Her much-respected father was a Burmese revolutionary leader and who founded the modern Burmese army. Considered the father of the country, General Aung San also founded the Communist Party of Burma and was a key figure in negotiating Burma’s independence from British colonial rule as well as negotiating the Panglong agreement – a treaty between ethnic leaders that guaranteed the independence of Burma as a unified state.
The popular misconception of women being second-class citizens was dispelled in the Aung San family, with Daw Suu Kyi’s mother, Daw Khin Kyi, leading an equally illustrious career as Aung San’s other half. Daw Khin Kyi met her husband during a stint as a senior nurse at Rangoon General Hospital where General Aung San was recovering from injuries sustained during the Burma Campaign of 1942.
However, the lively and colorful lives of the Aung San family were violently disrupted in 1947, when General Aung San was assassinated by his rivals, just six months before the country’s independence. The unfortunate event not only shook the Aung San household but also rattled the nation which lost a visionary leader and its Deputy Chairman of its former transitional government.
Daw Khin Kyi, the late general’s wife, gained political prominence in the wake of this devastating incident and was later elected as Burma’s ambassador to India and became the nation’s very first woman to serve as the head of a diplomatic effort. Daw Suu Kyi, then aged fifteen, followed her mother to New Delhi in pursuit of higher education.
From the relative comfort of Oxford…
Daw Suu Kyi obtained a degree in politics in New Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College in 1964. She then left for England, and graduated from Oxford University in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.
Daw Suu Kyi subsequently worked at the United Nations for three years. It was during this time that she became acquainted with her future husband, Dr Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibetan culture. Daw Suu Kyi married Dr Aris in 1971 and the couple has two children, Alexander and Kim Aris. Paper-chasing Daw Suu Kyi later earned a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in 1985.
…to war-ridden Rangoon
In 1988, eleven years after the birth of her youngest son, 43-year old Daw Suu Kyi left for Rangoon to tend to her ailing mother, who had suffered a severe stroke at the age of 76. Burma, at this time, was under the dictatorship of a military junta which was led by General Ne Win, long-time military leader and head of the ruling party.
Daw Suu Kyi’s visit coincided with the stepping down of Ne Win. Mass demonstrations campaigning for democracy followed that seemingly new dawn, which was brutally suppressed in what is now remembered as the 8888 Uprising.
Daw Suu Kyi was shocked at the violence she witnessed. She realized that the harsh political climate in Burma needed to change and was soon drawn into Burmese politics. Daw Suu Kyi led the pro-democracy movement to promote reform and in working for democratization, founded the National League for Democracy on 27 September 1988. Her husband and their children were supportive of Daw Suu Kyi’s endeavours and provided her with emotional and moral support, especially when her mother passed on later in the year.
However, just as things were looking good, a new military junta, led by the equally oppressive and autocratic General Than Shwe, took over the country in September and continued a second onslaught of authoritarian and ruthless rule. Daw Suu Kyi was seen as a threat to this new military junta and the country’s icon for democracy was placed under house arrest on 20 July 1989, under martial law that allows for three years of detention without charge or trial – an unfair incarceration which will later be followed with three more periods of house arrests, resulting in a total of 21 years for Daw Suu Kyi.
Tyranny and Tragedy
In 1990, an election called for by the military junta saw Daw Suu Kyi’s party garnering 59 per cent of the votes. This immediately guaranteed her party 80 per cent of parliamentary seats. However, the military junta refused to hand over power and nullified the results of the election. This resulted in an international outcry. However, the military junta’s refused to release Daw Suu Kyi from house arrest and instead extended her arbitrary detention from three years to six years – twice the sentence!
Daw Suu Kyi’s husband and children were also banned from visiting the country. Daw Suu Kyi last saw her husband, Dr Aris, during Christmas of 1995. Dr Aris later succumbed to terminal prostate cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 1997. He was not granted permission to visit his wife in Burma and although Daw Suu Kyi was temporarily free from house arrest at the time, she was hesitant to leave her country for fear of never being able to return to it. Dr Aris passed on in 1999, not having seen his wife for four years.
Daw Suu Kyi and Dr Aris’ struggles during his last years are well-documented in 2012’s ‘The Lady’, an award-winning English film directed by Luc Besson, starring Michelle Yeoh as Daw Suu Kyi and David Thewlis as Dr Aris.
Unreasonable, unwarranted detentions and a series of elections
Daw Suu Kyi was again placed on house arrest on 23 September 2000 and was released after 19 months on the 6th of May 2002. She was again detained without charge or trial on the 30th of May 2003, and was released on the 13th of November 2010, having spent a total of 15 years in the past 21 years under imprisonment.
After years of international pressure, warranted criticism from major socio-political organizations and figures, and countless diplomatic visits from democratic governments, Burma’s military junta began to relax its stance on political prisoners. It announced that it may release Daw Suu Kyi prior to the 2010 general election. However, in a movewe have come to expect from the Burmese military junta, the military dictatorship forbade Daw Suu Kyi to participate in the elections. She was released six days after a widely disparaged general election.
Her youngest son, Kim Aris, was granted a visa to Burma shortly after his mother’s release and was reunited with her, in November 2010, for the first time in a decade.
Following her release, there was speculation on whether Daw Suu Kyi would contest the 2012 Burmese national by-election to fill vacant parliamentary seats. Daw Suu Kyi formally registered to contest in a lower house constituency.
Daw Suu Kyi also campaigned forthe removal of restrictive laws, more adequate protections for people’s democratic rights, and the establishment of an independent judiciary.
She requested for the international media to be allowed to monitor the upcoming by-elections, citing irregularities in voter lists which included deceased individuals and excluded eligible voters.
On the 1st of April 2012, it was announced that 67-year old Daw Suu Kyi had won the votes for a seat in parliament and that her party had won 43 out of 45 seats contested making her the leader of the opposition in the lower house.
The 2012 elections seem to be the first and most promising effort at reform. Although the military junta has yet to fully relinquish its power over the nation, the future of Burma does indeed look hopeful with Daw Suu Kyi and her colleagues steppin' into parliament as lawmakers.
A new dawn
It seems that a new dawn has arisen in Burma. However, this is not the end but only the beginning for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
But who is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi? How can we define her? Is she a daughter who followed in her father’s footsteps? A wife or mother who gave up the security of her family to live a life of sacrifice for the freedom of her people? A true patriot of Burma? A well deserving Nobel Peace Prize laureate? An international icon for democracy and human-rights? Or can we call her today’s Mahatma Gandhi who achieved independence for his country without resorting to violence?
Yes, Daw Suu Kyi is a daughter who followed in her father’s footsteps. Sheis a wife and mother who gave up the security of her family to live a life of sacrifice for the freedom of her people. Daw Suu Kyi is a true patriot of Burma anda well deserving Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Sheis an international icon for democracy and human-rights and can be called today’s Mahatma Gandhi who has achieved true independence without resorting to violence. But most of all, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration – a beacon of light, if you will, to this generation, and to future generations to come, to live life with conviction and to dare to make your dreams come true.
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