Aung San Suu Kyi - Burmese Stateswoman

Aung San Suu Kyi - Burmese Stateswoman

Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese stateswoman. She is head of government from 2016 to 2021, a figure of non-violent opposition to the military dictatorship of her country and Nobel Peace Prize winner 1991. She is the daughter of Khin Kyi and her husband Aung San, a supporter of Burmese independence who was assassinated in 1947 when she was only two years old.

In 2014, she was ranked by Forbes as the 61st most powerful woman in the world.

Following the death of her father and one of her two brothers, Suu Kyi's mother became involved in social and public circles, gradually gaining prominence in the country's political landscape. In 1960, she was appointed ambassador for Burma.

At the same time, Suu Kyi studied at the English Catholic School of Burma, and finished her secondary education at the Lady Shri Ram College for Women in New Delhi, India, where her mother lived. She then moved to Britain to study philosophy, politics and economics at St Hugh's College, Oxford.

In 1969, at the age of 24, she moved to New York to begin graduate school, but dropped out after only a few weeks. She then became the Assistant Secretary of the Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions at the UN headquarters in New York.

In 1972, she married Michael Aris, whom she had met while studying Tibetan civilizations at Oxford. They had two sons, Alexander, born in 1973, and Kim, born in 1977. She divided her life between the United Kingdom and Bhutan, where her husband lived for his work. He died of prostate cancer in 1999.

In 1988, Suu Kyi returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother. That same year, pro-democracy demonstrations broke out throughout the country and were violently repressed by the army.

Strongly influenced by Gandhi's non-violent philosophy and Buddhist concepts, Suu Kyi decided to enter politics. On August 26, 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. In September, she announced the creation of theNational League for Democracy (NLD), accompanied by former generals Aung Gyi and Tin Oo. She was appointed General Secretary of the party. However, shortly afterwards, a new military junta took power.

On July 20, 1989, Suu Kyi and Tin Oo were arrested by the military government on charges of disorderly conduct under martial law, which allows for detention without charge or trial for at least three years. She was placed under house arrest for six years, and was forbidden to meet with party supporters and international visitors.

She spends her time in detention reading philosophy, politics and biographies sent to her by her husband, playing the piano, and is sometimes allowed visits from foreign diplomats and her personal physician. The media is also forbidden to visit Suu Kyi.

Although under house arrest, she is offered freedom on condition that she leaves the country, but she refuses. "As a mother, the greatest sacrifice was to give up my sons, but I was always aware that others had given up more than me. I never forget that my colleagues who are in prison are suffering not only physically, but also mentally for their families who have no security on the outside - in Burma's big prison under the authoritarian regime."

With the country in crisis, U Nu, Burma's previous democratically elected prime minister, sets out to form a caretaker government and invites opposition leaders to join him. Suu Kyi, from her residence, categorically rejects U Nu's plan, stating that "the future of the opposition would be decided by the masses of people."

The 1990 general elections, organized by the military junta under popular pressure, were largely won by Suu Kyi's NLD party, with 58.7% of the vote and 392 seats in the assembly (out of 492). But the results were annulled and the military refused to relinquish power, causing an international outcry and a crackdown in the country.

In 1991, while still under house arrest at her home, Suu Kyi received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which honors individuals or organizations that have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms. She was also awarded the Rafto Prize, honoring a person who has acted for human rights, and the Nobel Peace Prize, which was accepted on her behalf by her two sons.

The Nobel Prize Committee declared: "The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Burma) for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights. […] Suu Kyi's struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression. […] In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and 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."

Suu Kyi is using the $1.3 million in Nobel Peace Prize money to create a health and education fund for the Burmese people, continuing to advocate nonviolence as a timely political tactic. "I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons." She will be accused, in 2007, by state newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, of tax evasion for spending her Nobel Prize money outside the country.

In July 1995, she was released from house arrest, but she was forbidden to leave Rangoon to visit her family in the United Kingdom, or she would be denied the right to return to Burma. Separated from her children and her husband, she never saw him again until his death in 1999, and refused to attend his funeral for fear of not being able to return to Burma.

Considered by the Burmese government as a person "likely to undermine the peace and stability of the community" of the country, she was again placed under house arrest on September 23, 2000. The United Nations intervened to try to facilitate dialogue between the junta and Suu Kyi, and conducted secret negotiations aimed at building trust. On May 6, 2002, after 19 months of detention, the Burmese government agreed to release Suu Kyi, who proclaimed "a new dawn for the country.

However, on May 30, 2003, a government-backed mob attacked her caravan in the village of Depayin, killing and injuring several of her supporters. She tried to escape, but was arrested in Ye-U. She was held in secret detention for more than three months in Insein prison in Rangoon. A few months later, in September, she was hospitalized for a hysterectomy and then placed under house arrest again in Rangoon.

In September 2007, while under house arrest, Suu Kyi made a brief public appearance at the door of her residence to accept the blessings of Buddhist monks marching in support of human rights. In October, after 12 years under house arrest, solidarity demonstrations were held in cities around the world.

Between May 2007 and 2009, her house arrest will be extended several times. On November 12, 2010, a few days after the victory in the elections of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), supported by the military junta, the latter finally agreed to release Suu Kyi. Her house arrest ended on November 13, 2010.

In October 2011, following talks between Suu Kyi and the Burmese government, about one-tenth of Burma's political prisoners were released under an amnesty and trade unions were legalized. The following month, following a meeting of its leaders, Suu Kyi's NDA party announced its intention to re-register as a political party.

In July 2012, she announced on the World Economic Forum website that she wanted to run for president in Myanmar's 2015 elections. But the Constitution in force since 2008 prohibits her from running for president because she is a widow and the mother of foreigners, provisions that seem to have been written specifically to prevent her from being eligible. Nevertheless, her party won a large victory in the elections, winning at least 255 seats in the House of Representatives and 135 seats in the House of Nationalities. As a result, under the 2008 Constitution, she can become President since her party has obtained at least a two-thirds majority in both houses, and although it bars her from becoming President, she can hold real power in any NLD-led government.

In March 2016, she became Minister of the Presidency, Foreign Affairs, Education, Electricity and Energy in President Htin Kyaw's government. Later, she relinquished the latter two ministries, and the president appointed her as a state advisor.

As Foreign Minister, she invited the Foreign Ministers of China, Canada, Italy and Japan to discuss the possibility of good diplomatic relations with these countries.

As State Counselor, she granted amnesty to students arrested for opposing the National Education Bill and announced the establishment of a commission on Rakhine State, which has a long history of persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in Myanmar, she also chaired a national central committee to coordinate the country's response to the pandemic.

In February 2021, Suu Kyi was arrested and deposed by the Myanmar military, along with other leaders of her party, after the military declared the results of the 2020 general election fraudulent. A court ruling authorized her detention for 15 days. She was then placed under house arrest and on February 3 was formally charged with illegal importation of communications equipment, facing up to three years in prison. She was held incommunicado, without access to international observers or a legal representative of her choice.

According to the New York Times, the charge "echoes previous accusations of esoteric legal crimes (and) obscure offenses" used by the military against critics and rivals.

Between December 2021 and October 2022, the charges against her mounted, and she faced multiple charges, facing up to 15 years or more in prison: inciting dissent, violating COVID-19 protocols, importing and possessing walkie-talkies, bribery, election fraud and violating the State Secrets Act.

The trials, closed to the public, the media and any observers, are described as a "judicial circus of secret proceedings on trumped-up charges" by the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

In June 2022, junta authorities ordered, without explanation, that all further legal proceedings against Suu Kyi be held in the prison premises instead of a courtroom. At the same time, she was transferred from house arrest to solitary confinement in a specially constructed area inside a prison in Nay Pyi Taw.

In October 2022, her sentence amounted to 23 years imprisonment.

In December 2011, Suu Kyi met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the top U.S. diplomat's residence in Yangon and then with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, marking her first-ever meeting with the leader of a foreign country. She made a series of visits with foreign diplomats, including meetings with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and U.S. President Barack Obama. She will describe this last meeting as "one of the most moving days of my life".

In 2012, during her visit to Europe, Suu Kyi went to the Swiss Parliament to receive in person her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and her honorary degree from Oxford University. Two weeks later, in Oslo, she was finally able to give her Nobel acceptance speech. She also received in person, a few months later, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, the highest Congressional award, which had been awarded to her in 2008 when she was still under house arrest.

Asked in 2012 what democratic models Myanmar could learn from, Suu Kyi said, "We have many, many lessons to learn from various places […]. We wish to learn from everybody who has achieved a transition to democracy, and also […] our great strong point is that, because we are so far behind everybody else, we can also learn which mistakes we should avoid."

Alongside politics, Suu Kyi wrote several books: 'Letters from Burma' (1991), 'Nationalism and Literature in Burma' and 'The Voice of Defiance' (1996), 'Resistances' (2011) and 'My Burma' (2012). The most famous is "Freedom from Fear," a collection of her essays published in 1991. It is also the name given to her most famous speech: "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. […] Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. [...] A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man's self-respect and inherent human dignity. […] Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man."


"Freedom from Fear" d’Aung Sang Suu Kyi (1990) :

Aung Sang Suu Kyi, "Burma's Modern Symbol of Freedom"  - The Nobel Prize :


Photo: RANGOON, Burma (December 1, 2011) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for dinner in Rangoon during her historic visit to Burma. [State Department photo by William Ng]

Article by Julie Poutrel for Adama Toulon.