Aung San Suu Kyi (1945—)

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Aung San Suu Kyi (1945—)

Burmese human-rights activist, scholar, writer, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Born Suu Kyi in Rangoon, the capital of Burma (formally Yangon and Myanmar, respectively, since 1989), on June 19, 1945; the youngest of three children of Aung San (leader of the Burmese nationalist movement in the 1940s, which culminated in 1948 in the nation's attaining its independence from 50 years of British rule and three years of Japanese occupation) and Khin Kyi (Burma's ambassador to India and the first woman to head a Burmese diplomatic mission); attended Lady Sri Ram College and Delhi University; B.A. degree from St. Hugh's College at Oxford University (1967); attended University of Kyoto in Japan (1985); attended School of Oriental and African Studies at London University (1987); married Michael Aris (a scholar of Tibetan civilization), in 1972; children: two sons, Alexander and Kim.

Her name, Aung San Suu Kyi, means "A Bright Collection of Strange Victories," ironic in light of the circumstances surrounding her receipt of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her nonviolent quest for democracy in her ravaged nation. The Nobel Committee called her struggle, "one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades." Suu Kyi, however, did not attend the awards ceremony in Oslo. She remained under house arrest at her family home in Rangoon—placed there in July 1989 for violating the government ban on political activity. Freedom for the 46-year-old wife, mother, and scholar would not come for another four years.

Aung San Suu Kyi was born Suu Kyi in 1945, the youngest daughter of Aung San —respectfully called Bogyoke (a term expressing admiration for his leadership role in the Burmese nationalist movement, which, in 1948, won the country's independence from British rule). Unfortunately, Suu Kyi never got to know her father; he was assassinated by a political rival in July 1947, less than six months before Burma became formally independent. Without a leader of stature to succeed Aung San, in 1962 the country fell victim to a military coup led by General Ne Win, described by detractors as "inept and xenophobic."

Suu Kyi came late to the role of political activist and liberator of her country. Indeed, the first 30 years of her life were spent in relatively comfortable, apolitical environments outside her homeland. She left the country at 15 when her mother became Burma's ambassador to India. In New Delhi, she enjoyed an fashionable home and a privileged education, including piano and horseback-riding lessons. She graduated from Oxford University in 1967. After working in England as a teacher and in New York City at the United Nations, she married Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibetan civilization she had met at Oxford. The couple had two sons, Alexander and Kim.

As a housewife and mother, Suu Kyi continued her scholarly pursuits but became increasingly consumed with learning more about the father she never knew. She undertook research for a biographical essay about him, and even added his name to her own, becoming Aung San Suu Kyi. Reading about her father rekindled her own patriotism, though she had always entertained the idea of returning to Burma to serve her people. Before her marriage to Aris, she had elicited his promise that she be allowed to return to her country if she felt the need.

In March 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Rangoon to care for her dying mother. Just beyond the family estate on Inya Lake, the capital was in turmoil, with student uprisings against the government and armed soldiers in the street. As the student death toll increased, it ignited a rage in the Burmese people, who had for decades watched their once resource-rich land deteriorate into one of the least productive areas in the world. When Ne Win appointed his crony General Sein Lwin as leader of the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party, the population erupted in protest, taking to the streets where they were met with indiscriminate army gunfire. As Suu Kyi listened to reports of the deaths of as many as 3,000 citizens, she could no longer remain a bystander. "As my father's daughter, I felt I had a duty to get involved," she said.

At her first major public appearance in front of a crowd of 500,000, she spoke of basic human rights, including freedom to choose one's government. She attempted to reconcile civil and military authorities by urging the leaders to resume their proper role as protectors of the people. Many observers were struck by her resemblance to her father, in both appearance and mannerisms. As her following grew, civil unrest continued, even after Sein Lwin was replaced with the more conciliatory Maung Maung, who took immediate steps to remove the soldiers from the streets. The government reasserted control over the country with the establishment of the State Law & Order Restorational Council as the supreme political authority in the land. It

banned political demonstrations of over four persons and reaffirmed the right to arrest and sentence citizens without trial.

On September 24, 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi founded the National League of Democracy and became its secretary-general. In defiance of the ban on political gatherings, she continued her efforts for "Burma's second struggle for independence," touring towns and villages to elicit support. By the end of 1988, the government began arresting her supporters and undertook a hate campaign against her, accusing her of being a Communist and of engaging in "abnormal sexual practices." On April 5, 1989, at a political gathering, she found herself facing soldiers with guns drawn, who had been sent to kill her. Asking her supporters to move aside, she calmly walked toward the pointed guns. Spared only at the last minute by a counter-command not to shoot, she made light of her courage: "It seemed so much simpler to provide them with a single target than to bring everyone else in."

In June 1989, Suu Kyi publicly speculated that Ne Win had remained in control of the government even after his "retirement" in 1988; she also exhorted members of the army to reexamine their loyalties. In July, she called the government "fascist" in its declaration of martial law. She further commented, "To achieve democracy, the struggle against fascism must be continued with courage." A month later—11 months after she had joined the prodemocracy movement—she disappeared.

In Suu Kyi's early days under house arrest, she was allowed contact with her husband and sons, but family visits and written correspondence were later denied. Although her party won an overwhelming victory in May 1990, the military refused to release her or transfer power as they had promised. Even worldwide condemnation of Suu Kyi's detention did not move the government powers. In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1990 Suu Kyi was awarded the Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize for Human Rights and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. In June 1990, a birthday card for her was signed by more than 1,000 worldwide. As her imprisonment wore on, the young people of her country began wearing miniature pins bearing her photograph. In July 1995, Suu Kyi was finally freed from her six-year detention; her battle was far from over.


Graham, Judith, ed. Current Biography 1992. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1992.

Nelan, Bruce W. "Heroine in Chains," in Time. October 28, 1991, p. 73.

"The Wages of Courage," in People. November 28, 1991, p. 129.

Win, Aye Aye. "Burmese dissident freed by military," in The [New London] Day. July 11, 1995.

suggested reading:

Aung San Suu Kyi. Freedom From Fear & Other Writings. NY: Viking Penguin, 1991.

——, with Alan Clements. The Voice of Hope. Seven Stories Press, 1997.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts