Aung San Suu Kyi's struggle for democracy in Burma

Burmese icon Aung San Suu Kyi has spent 15 of the last 21 years in detention without trial. The Nobel Peace laureate has promoted a non-violent movement for democracy in Burma, also known as Myanmar, and is running in the country's by-elections on April 1.
Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi greets supporters from her vehicle during her election campaign in Aung Pan in the Southern Shan State of Burma, also known as Myanmar, on March 1, 2012. (Khin Maung Win/Associated Press)

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has promoted a non-violent movement for democracy in Burma, has become an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression.

Burma's military government released Suu Kyi on Nov. 13, 2010, after she spent 15 of the previous 21 years under house arrest.

With her National League for Democracy once again allowed to contest elections, Suu Kyi won a seat in parliament on April 1, 2012. The NLD won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs in by-elections.  She was allowed to campaign and speak openly in public, her supporters  able to greet her en masse without fear of reprisal.

"I am able to travel freely around the country and even if sometimes we meet with a few obstacles … we have been able to reconnect with our people and that is the great difference for us," she said on Feb. 29, 2012, via a video link from her home in Burma to a conference at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The crowds that greeted her would have been unthinkable just a year ago, when the long-ruling junta of Burma, also known as Myanmar, was still in power and demonstrations were all but banned.



April 30, 2012 — Aung San Suu Kyi and the other elected representatives of the National League for Democracy will take their seats in Burma's parliament on May 2. 

They had been boycotting the new parliamentary session because they object to swearing the required oath to "safeguard the Constitution." They want the oath changed to "respect the Constitution," and the law itself amended because they say it gives too much power to the military.

"The people want the NLD to enter parliament," Suu Kyi said today, adding that they will now work from within the assembly to resolve the issue.


Change in government

After nearly half a century of military rule, a nominally civilian government took office in March 2011, eventually releasing hundreds of political prisoners, signing cease-fire deals with ethnic rebels, increasing media freedoms and easing censorship laws.

Although sweeping changes have come about, Suu Kyi said that "ultimate power still rests with the army" and she continues to be "cautiously optimistic" about the future of Burma and democracy.

"Until we have the army solidly behind the process of democratization we cannot say that we have got to a point where there will be no danger of a u-turn. Many people are beginning to say that the democratization process here is irreversible…it’s not so," she said Feb. 29.

Freedom-fighting runs in the family

Suu Kyi is the daughter of one of Burma's most cherished heroes, Gen. Aung San, who led his country's fight for independence from Great Britain in the 1940s and was killed for his beliefs in 1947.

She was two years old when her father — the de facto prime minister of newly independent Burma — was assassinated. Though a Buddhist, she was educated at Catholic schools and left for India in her mid-teens with her mother, who became the Burmese ambassador to India.

Suu Kyi went to England, where she studied at Oxford University and met Michael Aris, a Tibetan scholar. They married and had two sons, Alexander and Kim.

A watershed moment in Suu Kyi's life came in 1988 when she received a call from Burma that her mother had suffered a stroke and did not have long to live. Suu Kyi returned to Burma, leaving her husband and two children in England, having cautioned them years before that duty may one day call her back to her homeland.

A bloody crackdown and house arrest

She arrived back in Burma to care for her mother at a time of a burgeoning pro-democracy movement, fuelled by the energy and idealism among the country's young people. There were demonstrations against the repressive, one-party socialist government.

Suu Kyi was drawn into a mushrooming pro-democracy movement in the country, helping to found the National League for Democracy to advance the people's cause. However, a junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) seized power on Sept. 18, 1988, and violently cracked down on the protests.

Thousands of pro-democracy advocates were killed and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest the following year.

Next came a general election in 1990, which political parties were allowed to contest. Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory, with 80 per cent support. This was not to be tolerated by the regime's leaders, who refused to recognize the election results.

Despite her detainment and the setback, Suu Kyi continued to campaign for democracy.

The world takes notice

Her persistence paid off and the international community took up the cause. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and was released from house arrest in 1995. Soon after gaining her freedom, Suu Kyi gave one of her most dramatic speeches at a global women's conference in Beijing. She didn't appear at the conference, but spoke to the international gathering by means of a video smuggled out of Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi talks about the pro-democracy movement during an interview in Rangoon in 1996. ((Richard Vogel/Associated Press))

"To the best of my knowledge, no war was ever started by women," she said in the speech, expressing herself with the calm conviction and passion that reflects her Buddhist upbringing. "But it is women and children who have always suffered the most in situations of conflict."

Without specifically targeting the Burmese dictatorship, her words dripped with gentle sarcasm. It was a powerful speech, subtly crafted for the targeted audience in her homeland.

A time of grief

In 1999, Michael Aris was dying of prostate cancer in England where he lived with their two sons. He had repeatedly requested permission to visit his wife one last time before he died, but junta's authorities denied him entry, arguing that there are no proper facilities in the country to tend to a dying man.

They suggested instead that Suu Kyi visit him in England. She refused, fearing if she ever left the country she would never be allowed to return. The day Aris died, on his 53rd birthday, Suu Kyi honoured the occasion at her home in Rangoon with 1,000 friends and supporters, including high-ranking diplomats from Europe and the United States.

Instead of wearing her usual bright flowers and wreathes of jasmine, Suu Kyi chose instead a traditional black lungi with a white jacket. She cried only when one of the monks reminded the audience that the essence of Buddhism is to treat suffering with equanimity.

The steep price of struggle

The junta continued to keep a watchful eye on Suu Kyi and, a year and a half later, there was outrage around the world when Suu Kyi tried to leave Rangoon, only to be thwarted by authorities. It was similar to a roadside standoff in 1998, when she suffered severe dehydration and had to be returned to her home by ambulance.

In September 2000, she was again placed under house arrest until the United Nations helped to guarantee her release 19 months later. But her freedom was short-lived. In 2003, she was put into "protective custody" after her motorcade was attacked.

Being under house arrest for so many years has taken a toll. The long years of isolation, the lack of contact with family, friends and colleagues, the crushing of the latest protests clearly weigh on her.

In photos taken after her two meetings with UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari in September 2007, the 62-year-old Suu Kyi appeared exhausted and discouraged, unable even to fake a smile for being allowed the rare privilege of talking to an outside guest.

Days before she was to complete a six-year house arrest term in May 2009, Suu Kyi went on trial in a cloistered prison courtroom, accused of violating the terms of her incarceration.

To many in the international community, the guilty verdict that followed was never in doubt. Suu Kyi was sentenced to 18 months of additional house arrest in August 2009.

The charges were based on Burmese government allegations that American John William Yettaw, 53, swam across a lake and allegedly snuck into her home for two days. According to Suu Kyi's restriction order, she was prohibited from having contact with embassies and political parties and she was barred from communicating with the outside world.

The world, though, did not forget her struggle. During a presentation ceremony in Burma on March 8, 2012, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird gave Suu Kyi the certificate of honorary Canadian citizenship Parliament had awarded her in 2007 and an informal invitation to visit Canada.

With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press