Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?

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Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced ong-saan-soo-CHEE) is the rightful leader of the Southeast Asian nation Burma. In 1990, when Burma had its first free elections in 30 years, her National League for Democracy party won 82 percent of the seats in the national parliament.

Suu Kyi has never served a day in government office, though. Burma’s brutal military leadership refused to accept the results of the 1990 election. They’ve kept Suu Kyi in and out of house arrest since 1989.

Sadly, the imprisonment of a pro-democracy leader by power-hungry thugs is such a common occurrence around the world that, by itself, it’s hardly notable. But Suu Kyi’s struggle in Burma stands out.

First of all, unlike national liberation leaders such as Tibet’s Tenzin Gyatso (you, me, and Richard Gere usually refer to him by his title, the Dalai Lama) and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Suu Kyi and the NLD were elected first and then denied power. Mandela and his party, the African National Congress, didn’t actually win the legal right to lead South Africa until after Mandela was released from prison in 1990. And the Dalai Lama isn’t Tibet’s elected leader; he’s a religious leader. Tenzin Gyatso became the 14th and current Dalai Lama when, at the age of 2, monks determined that he was the reincarnation of the recently deceased 13th Dalai Lama. I don’t make it up, folks.

Second of all, Suu Kyi’s personal bravery over the past two decades has been astonishing. She didn’t set out to become the living martyr for the freedom of her people. Until 1985, she was a British housewife and mother of two. OK, maybe not just any housewife. She was an intense, charismatic Oxford-schooled housewife who just happened to be the daughter of Gen. Aung San, the beloved Burmese independence leader assassinated in 1947.

Curious about her famous father (she was only 2 when he was murdered), she began researching his life to write a biography. Her friends describe her awakened interest in her father as both personal and scholarly. She was not, they insist, studying her father’s life with the intention of entering Burmese politics.

But that’s exactly what she did. In early 1988, Suu Kyi returned to Burma to care for her mother, who’d just suffered a severe stroke. The Burma that she returned to was seething with political unrest. Protesters were angry at decades of cruel and incompetent leadership by their socialist government and corrupt, murder-happy military.

She stepped into the middle of that unrest on Aug. 26, 1988, when she gave her first political speech to an audience of 100,000. Because she was the daughter of the adored Gen. San, people came to hear what she had to say. To roars of approval, she demanded multiparty democracy for Burma and characterized the nation’s political upheaval as “the second struggle for national independence.”

The Burmese military wasn’t having any of that. They declared martial law and killed thousands in the crackdown that followed. Instead of ensuring her personal safety by returning to Oxford, Suu Kyi responded by getting in touch with her inner-Gandhi. Unarmed, peaceful and poised, the 5-foot-3-inch Suu Kyi repeatedly faced Burmese soldiers during demonstrations. When they placed her under house arrest, she went on a hunger strike. It wasn’t a ploy to gain release. She refused to eat until she was placed in the same prison that all the other political activists were being held in.

She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and donated the money that came with it to a trust supporting health care in Burma.

The biggest hardship Suu Kyi had to make since taking up the cause of her people’s freedom was an personal one. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer in 1998. The Burmese government would not let him come to Burma to visit her. They offered to let her go visit him in England, but only as a ploy to get her to leave. If she left, they would not have allowed her to return. Forced to choose between Burma and her husband, she chose her country. Her husband died in 1999.

While temporarily released from house arrest, a gang of thugs assaulted Suu Kyi and a group of her supporters in 2003. Eyewitnesses say hundreds were killed and injured. Suu Kyi was rearrested during the attack. Since then, she hasn’t been allowed phone calls or visitors. Aung San Suu Kyi turned 60 on June 19.