Bertil Lintner charts the rise of Burma's pro-democracy heroine who was
detained by the ruling junta on July 20, 1989.
When the Council of the
Socialist International in May celebrated the conclusion of its meeting in Japan
with a cruise in the Tokyo Bay, some of the delegates were surprised to see an
elderly, bespectacled Asian gentleman pinning "Free Aung San Suu Kyi" buttons on
their lapels. Win Khet, a leading Burmese dissident, had seized the opportunity
to highlight the plight of the incarcerated leader of his country's
pro-democracy movement. Among those who received an Aung San Suu Kyi badge was
Cambodian Second Prime Minister, Hun Sen, who responded by saying that he would
do his best to seek her release.
Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house
arrest by Burma's military rulers on 20 July 1989 - exactly five years ago - and
there she remains, a prisoner in her home on University Avenue in Rangoon. But
she still symbolizes much of what Burma wants to be but is not: a free,
democratic and prosperous member of the world community.
Her rise to
prominence began on 25 August 1988. On that day, a large crowd gathered at the
foot of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon. People laid out bed rolls to pass the
night on; entire families squatted in circles around their evening meals. By the
next morning at least half a million people of all ages, and national and social
groups in Burmese society had come together for what would be the biggest rally
in Burma's then new-born democracy movement.
They were there well in time
to get a good viewpoint for an extraordinary event that was going to take place:
Aung San Suu Kyi, the 43-year old daughter of Burma's independence hero, Aung
San, was going to make her first public appearance. She had returned from abroad
a few weeks before at a time when the country was in the midst of political
upheaval. Student protests had led to the most serious challenge to the
iron-fisted rule of General Ne Win since he had overthrown Burma's
democratically elected government and seized power in a coup d'état in
The mood was festive, but there were several bomb-scares before the
meeting could begin by mid-morning of the 26th. Young pro-democracy students and
Buddhist monks in saffron robes formed human chains around the stage and checked
out suspicious-looking characters. The ground outside the pagoda complex was
jam-packed. Even all the roads leading up to the meeting place were full of
But, at last, a slim professorial woman made her way
through the cheering crowds. A huge portrait of her father, sometimes nicknamed
"the George Washington of Burma", had been placed above the stage alongside a
resistance flag from the struggle for independence for the then British colony
in the 1940s. She walked up to the stage amidst deafening applause and
After taking the microphone, her initial message of democracy
through unity and discipline gave way to a more personal note:
of people are saying that since I've spent most of my life abroad and am married
to a foreigner, I could not be familiar with the ramifications of this country's
politics," she said over the loudspeakers, "I wish to speak very frankly and
openly, It's true that I've lived abroad. It's also true that I'm married to a
foreigner. But these facts have never, and will never, interfere or lessen my
love and devotion for my country by any measure or degree. People have been
saying that I know nothing of Burmese politics. The trouble is I know too much.
My family know better than any how devious Burmese politics can be and how much
my father had to suffer on this account."
Hundreds of thousands of people
cheered and applauded. Her famous, almost deified father had been assassinated
by a rival politician on 19 July 1947 - barely six months before Burma obtained
its independence from Britain. The roar reached its crescendo when she
concluded: "The present crisis is the concern of the entire nation. I could not,
as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on. This
crisis could, in fact, be called the second struggle for
Most of the people who had come to hear her outside the
Shwe Dagon had probably done so out of curiosity. Virtually unknown when she
rose to speak, by the end of that day almost six years ago she had won the
hearts and the minds of her audience - and later, of an entire nation.
Aung San Suu Kyi has captured the image of a lone woman standing up,
unarmed, against the might of the Burmese army, one of the most brutal military
machines in Asia - a modern Joan of Arc.
Her background greatly
contributed to her courage. She left Burma in 1960 at the age of 15 when her
mother, Aung San's widow, was appointed Burmese ambassador to India. It was
during the most formative years of her youth that she acquired her lasting
admiration for the principles of non-violence embodied in the life and political
philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi.
She left for Britain in 1964 to further her
studies at Oxford. Three years later, she was in New York, holding various posts
at the United Nations secretariat. Her main intellectual inspiration during this
time seems to have come from the civil rights movement; in Martin Luther King's
speeches she found similarities with the ideals of Gandhi with which she already
was so keenly familiar.
In 1972 she married Michael Aris, a British
expert on Tibet who was employed as a private tutor to the Royal Family of the
Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. After their marriage, she took the post of research
officer in the Bhutanese Foreign Ministry with specific responsibility for UN
affairs. The young couple remained there for a couple of years before they
returned to England.
She had just started a post-graduate thesis at the
School of Oriental and African Studies in London when in April 1988 her mother
suffered a stroke. Aung San Suu Kyi immediately returned to Rangoon to look
after her. That was when Burma exploded with an unprecedented fury, taking
everyone, probably the Burmese themselves included, by complete surprise.
Burma's students, always at the forefront of any political movement in the
country's history, took to the streets by the tens of thousands. Millions of
older people joined them.
The protests were met with unbelievable
brutality. Police and army units opened fire, killing thousands of teenagers and
youths in their early twenties. Many more were arrested and there were credible
reports of torture and girl students having been raped in police custody.
Although it is an almost unknown movement, more people died for democracy in
Burma than in the bloody crackdown that was unleashed at Tiananmen Square in
Beijing a year later.
To placate the restive crowds, and to appease the
international community that had condemned the carnage in Rangoon, the ruling
military announced that they were going to hold "free and fair elections." Aung
San Suu Kyi, now leader of the main opposition party, the National League for
Democracy (NLD), embarked on a strenuous program, traveling to virtually every
part of Burma, her insistence on Gandhian principles of non-violent
confrontation came to play a crucial role in transforming the Burmese uprising
into a sustained and remarkably co-ordinated movement.
Burton Levin, the
then US ambassador to Burma, commented at the time "Even though she is married
to a foreigner, nonetheless she touches a chord among the whole spectrum of
Burmese life. The first time she came to my house for lunch, I had every one of
my servants just lining up. It was like, in American terms, one of these nutty
rock stars appearing at a high school. It was really something. She's got
charisma, she's bright, she knows how to speak, she's come to the
Even when the regime of the old dictator, General Ne Win,
threatened her, she continued to speak out. Eventually, on 20 July 1989, the
ruling military placed her under house arrest. Thousands of NLD workers were
arrested all over the country.
But regardless of these measures, Aung San
Suu Kyi's basic message had begun to take firm roots among the population at
large. She was the moral authority that had advocated freedom when the military
slapped martial law on the country. More informal talks had focused on the
importance of reading books, or for the people to take responsibility of their
own neighborhoods - where grassroots democracy should begin.
San Suu Kyi muzzled, the NLD suppressed and the people fearful, the military
hoped that the elections would mean little. That was a gross miscalculation.
When the Burmese eventually were allowed to go to the polls on 27 May 1990, they
voted overwhelmingly for Aung San Suu Kyi's party. The NLD captured 392 out of
485 contested seats in the assembly. Another 50 or so seats went to allied
parties. The military-backed National Unity Party secured a mere ten
According to a Rangoon-based diplomat: "Burmese throughout the
country were often unaware of the local NLD candidate they were actually voting
for . But they all had heard of Aung San Suu Kyi. It was yes to her and no to Ne
Win and the military."
But rather than convening the assembly, the
military started hunting down the winners of the election. More than 60 NLD MPs
elect ended up behind bars. Many others fled the country or went into hiding.
For their efforts, the Burmese military was snubbed by the international
community when, in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the most prestigious of
international honors: the Nobel Peace Prize.
Aung San Suu Kyi remains
under house arrest in Rangoon, and despite recently allowing a visit by US
congressman Bill Richardson - the first by a non-family member - the military
are unlikely to release her within the foreseeable future.
mini-boom in post-coup Burma, and a refocusing of Western attention to North
Korea's nuclear sabre-rattling and other issues, have further strengthened the
Burmese military junta's hand.
However, in spite of her incarceration,
Aung San Suu Kyi remains a source of inspiration for young people throughout
Asia, a region where so-called "modern", business-oriented governments sometimes
provide economic development for their countries - but often stifle intellectual
life and suppress basic civil liberties. Even her jailers, whose grip on power
seems more secure than ever, now feel pressure to open talks with
Aung San Suu Kyi's military opponents have tried to capitalize on
her marriage to a foreigner to prove that she is "un-Burmese", the experiences
she has gained from living in different countries and cultures have provided the
guiding light for a pro-democracy movement in a country that has been cut off
from the rest of the world for decades.
She is a powerful synthesis of
East and West - not unlike the nationalist leaders who led many Third World
countries to independence after World War Two.