The Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has written:
"It is [our]vision of a world fit for rational, civilized humanity which leads [us] to dare and to suffer to build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power…
"The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear…
We will prevail because our cause is right, because our cause is just. ...History is on our side. Time is on our side."
In the exotic Southeast Asian nation of Burma (sometimes called Myanmar), a country of about 50 million people on the Bay of Bengal, a battle of wills of heroic proportions has been taking place for the past few decades. At first glance, it might seem an uneven struggle. On one side stands one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, known as SLORC (the State Law and Restoration Council). On the other side is an heroic 65-year old mother of two sons named Aung San Suu Kyi.
For more than 30 years, Aung San Suu Kyi was held as a virtual prisoner in her home on the outskirts of Rangoon. She was held in virtual isolation from 1989 to 1995 for daring to speak out against a government which has killed tens of thousands of its own citizens, which as tortured thousands of others, and which enslaves countless political prisoners in forced labor camps. For a few years in the mid-1990s, following her being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, official house arrest was lifted by the Burmese junta, though Aung San Suu Kyi was trailed continually, forbidden from meeting with foreigners, and told that if she ever dared to leave the country, she would most certainly not be let back in.
But following her release from confinement, she continued to challenge the dictatorship at every opportunity. Every weekend, thousands of Burmese men, women, and children, at no small risk to themselves, would congregate in front of her home and wait for her to address them. Her weekly speeches became the country’s only open forum of free ideas. In 1998, SLORC banned any gatherings in the vicinity of Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound, and arrested thousands of suspected supporters of the democratic movement. In 2003, they reinstituted formal house arrest (which was then again lifted in late 2010).
Aung San Suu Kyi has been a great inspiration—to her own people, and to the whole world. As Madeline Albright once said, “When the Burmese government tries to blame the victims for the crime, and say that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are responsible for their own repression, I can only reply that much the same was once said about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel. The world is not fooled.”
She has become an inspiration to the world. But the personal cost to Suu Kyi has been great. Once her struggle against the Burmese junta began, she was allowed to see her husband and children only a few times. When her husband, Michael Aris, an British citizen and professor at Oxford, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1997, the junta refused to allow him into Burma to visit his wife one last time. She was told that she would not be allowed to return to her homeland should she leave to visit him. So, Aris died in 1998, having never seen his wife again. She has not been allowed contact with her sons, Alexander and Kim, who live in England, since 1999.
Even though Aung San Suu Kyi had been born into a prominent Burmese political family, she was leading a quiet life in England as a housewife and an academic when her country called. Almost overnight, she was transformed into a symbol of democracy, freedom, and resistance.
For many of Burma’s people, Aung San Suu Kyi is a living link to their history. She is the daughter of Burma’s greatest modern hero, General Aung San, who founded the Burmese army in 1941, and led the fight to expel the Japanese during World War Two. After the war, Aung San entered into negotiations with the British for independence, which was scheduled for January 4, 1948. But before that date arrived—on July 19, 1947—Aung San was assassinated by right wing political rivals. He was only 32 years old; he left a wife and three children—two sons and a daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was just two years old at the time.
At the age of 15, she moved to New Delhi, where her mother was appointed Burma’s ambassador to India. Later, she studied at Oxford University and received her degree in political science and economics. Following her graduation, she came to New York to work at the United Nations. It was a time of political and social turmoil in the United States, Suu Kyi said of her time in America. “The young people were for love and not war. There was a feeling of tremendous vigor.”
In 1972, Aung San Suu Kyi married Michael Aris, and just before their wedding she had written to him, saying: “I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me do my duty by them.” The two settled in Oxford, where they began to raise a family, and Aung San Suu Kyi continued studying for her doctorate. It was a fairly quiet, normal life.
Quickly, the military government moved with full force against the pro-democracy movement. On August 26, a general strike was called in Rangoon, and Aung San Suu Kyi addressed her people for the first time. “People have been saying that I know nothing of Burmese politics,” she began. Then, recalling her father’s assassination, she continued, “The trouble is, I know too much.”
Overnight, it seemed, Aung San Suu Kyi became Burma’s voice of freedom, the leading spokesman for the Movement for Democracy. On September 18, 1988, the government declared martial law, and stepped up its repression. Thousands more were killed. But the opposition couldn’t be stifled. A week later, the National League for Democracy was founded, and Aung San Suu Kyi was chosen as its leader.
For the next year, she would travel around her country, rallying people to the cause. She made over 1000 speeches, in large cities and small hamlets, often at no small risk to herself. In April 1989, as she and a group of demonstrators were returning to Rangoon, they were stopped, and Aung San Suu Kyi got out of the car, and started to walk toward the battalion of troops. “It seemed so much simpler,” she explained later, “to provide them with a single target.” A captain order his soldiers to raise their rifles, but as Aung San Suu Kyi continued to move forward, seemingly freed from all fear, the soldiers put down their guns, and the caravan was allowed to proceed.
Shortly after this incident, the dictatorship ordered Aung San Suu Kyi placed under house arrest at her home in Rangoon until further notice. She would not be released from incarceration until July of 1995—six years later.
In the meantime, though, her fame grew, and the struggle in Burma received increased notice around the world. In May 1990, in response to international pressure, the Burmese government allowed the first free elections in more than 30 years. But when Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy gained over 80% of the vote, the military junta simply voided the election and announced the formation of SLORC—the State Law and Restoration Council—instead.
But Aung San Suu Kyi and her movement would not just fade away. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, with all proceeds going to establish a health and education trust fund for the people of Burma. In 1991, the first book of her writings was published under the title Freedom From Fear—with all proceeds again earmarked for her people.
In her speech to the European Parliament after being awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (a speech which, of course, she was never able to deliver in person), she said:
“It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and the fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it… It is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all its forms becomes deeply entrenched…”
The people of Burma, she continued, had grown weary of passivity and fear. She quoted the lyrics of a song of the student rebellion:
Emerald cool we may be
As water in cupped hands
But oh that we might be
As splinters of glass in cupped hands, too…
The days when the Burmese people were like water—cool and passive and pliant—in the cupped hands of their oppressors were drawing to a close, slowly but surely, Aung San Suu Kyi declared. Instead, they were set of becoming “glass splinters” in the hands of the oppressors: “Glass splinters, the smallest with its sharp, glinting power to defend itself against hands that try to crush… a vivid symbol of the spark of courage, essential to those who would free themselves from the grip of oppression.”
“The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit,” Aung San Suu Kyi continued. “A revolution which aims merely at changing official policies and institutions with a view to an improvement in material conditions [alone] has little chance of genuine success… It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy, and human rights. There has to be [also] 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.”
“Saints,” she reminded her listeners, “are simply sinners who go on trying.”
So, in their most recent “Saffron Revolution”in 2007, the saintly people of Burma—their brave Buddhist monks, their shining “lady” (they refer to Aung San Suu Kyi as simply “the lady” within Burma—even to speak her name publicly is a crime, punishable by years in prison)—and hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands—of ordinary men and women—workers, and farmers, and students, and teachers, the whole nation—have opened our eyes again to the power of freedom in the human heart.
“Please use your liberty to promote ours,” Aung San Suu Kyi implores us. And, she continues:
"We have faith in the power to change what needs to be changed but we are under no illusion that the transition from dictatorship to… democracy will be easy, or that democratic government will mean the end of all our problems. We know that our greatest challenges lie ahead of us and that our struggle to establish a stable, democratic society will continue beyond our own life span.
But we know that we are not alone. The cause of liberty and justice finds sympathetic responses around the world. Thinking and feeling people everywhere, regardless of color or creed, understand the deeply rooted human need for a meaningful existence that goes beyond the mere gratification of material desires. Those fortunate enough to live in societies where they are entitled to full political rights can reach out to help their less fortunate brethren in other areas of our troubled planet…"