“Democracy, like liberty, justice and other social and political rights, is not 'given,' it is earned through courage, resolution, and sacrifice.”Aung San Suu Kyi
“Democracy, like liberty, justice and other social and political rights, is not 'given,' it is earned through courage, resolution, and sacrifice,” Aung San Suu Kyi famously wrote about her struggle for power in an undemocratic Burma. Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s beloved revolutionary founding father, General Aung San, was born in modern-day Rangoon (Yangon), the capital of British Burma, in June 1945. As Burma’s de facto head of government today, Suu Kyi’s entry into politics was never a given – she faced immense obstacles from the Burmese military junta, which placed her under house arrest in 1989, a year after it seized control of the country. However, Suu Kyi gained worldwide recognition – and the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize – for steadfastly championing the principles of democracy.
After the 1947 assassination of Suu Kyi’s father, who had led the Burmese revolt against the British before independence, Suu Kyi’s mother – a former nurse – took on a political role, and was appointed as an ambassador to India. Suu Kyi spent her adolescence in India, and later enrolled at Oxford University, where she met her husband, British historian Michael Aris. In 1972, the two wedded and not long thereafter gave birth to two children (both British nationals): Alexander Aris and Kim Aris. While contesting elections in November 2015, Suu Kyi was banned from the title of the presidency by the military-drafted constitution, which forbade anyone with a foreign spouse or children from possessing the title (both of Suu Kyi’s children and her husband, who died in 1999 from cancer, are British).
In the late 60s and early 70s, Suu Kyi and her family moved around the U.S., Bhutan, Japan, India, and England. For her part, Suu Kyi entered the political fray in August 1988, when she addressed half a million Burmese citizens with pro-democracy sermons to a groundswell of popular support. In 1988, Suu Kyi co-founded Burma’s National League for Democracy (NLD), a democratic socialist party. During the same year, Burma’s military brutally killed thousands participating in an uprising against its rule. A year later, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. The following year, the NLD party won in a landslide election, but the military did not recognize the legitimacy of the vote, rendering it null. In 1995, Suu Kyi was finally removed from house arrest, though travel restrictions were imposed on her to curtail her political ambitions.
Five years later, after trying to visit the country’s second-largest city, Mandalay, the military re-authorized her house arrest. From 2003 onwards – when Suu Kyi was imprisoned during NLD-military clashes – scant images of Suu Kyi appeared in the outside world, save for a September 2007 appearance of her praying with defiant Buddhist monks. In 2010, the Burmese Supreme Court rejected her appeal against detention, and a month later, she announced a boycott of Burma’s 2010 elections, the first in two decades. In May of the same year, the NLD was forced to dissolve thanks to new election rules. During the November 2010 elections, the Union Solidarity and Development party, backed by the army, won by a large margin, in a vote widely seen as illegitimate without the participation of the country’s largest opposition party.
In November 2015, Burma’s opposition NLD party finally had the chance to take control of the civilian government. With popular support of the electorate, which had grown weary of military corruption and overreach, the NLD swept in a landslide victory – casting off years of rule by the junta. Crowds of Burmese men and women cheered jubilantly, voicing effusive optimism about the country’s newfound course. Suu Kyi’s close aide Htin Kyaw took on the mantle of the presidency, giving Suu Kyi the crown of a Minister for Foreign Affairs and the newly-created role of State Counsellor. Among her first victories was granting amnesty to students imprisoned for protesting against an education bill.
Despite the political inroads Suu Kyi has achieved in a short period, her failures as a politician have largely hinged on the ongoing humanitarian crisis faced by one group: the Rohingya, a 1.3 million-strong stateless Muslim minority in Burma, which has faced deteriorating living conditions in displacement camps in northwestern Rakhine state. The Rohingya face a curtailment of fundamental rights, such as access to school, medicine, or work. Stripped of their citizenship by the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law and labeled “Bengalis” by the Burmese, the Rohingya were also blocked from voting in the November 2015 elections that brought Suu Kyi to power.
Over the last four months, a brutal military crackdown in Rakhine state has also left the province reeling. United Nations reports document that the military instituted a “calculated policy of terror,” featuring wanton violence like mass torching of Rohingya homes, rapes of Rohingya women, and indiscriminate killing of young and old Rohingya men. The most recent episode of upheaval has also created a mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims scattering to neighboring Bangladesh, where at least 70,000 Rohingya refugees are waiting for relief.
Suu Kyi has drawn the ire of international observers for failing to condemn a worsening humanitarian crisis under her watch. However, Suu Kyi’s ability to check military abuses is hampered by a military-drafted constitution from 2008 that assigns 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the armed forces, and endows control of key institutions to the army, in addition to giving the military constitutional veto powers.
“It is undeniably easier to ignore the hardships of those who are too weak to demand their rights than to respond sensitively to their needs,” a younger Suu Kyi wrote before assuming political power. “To care is to accept responsibility, to dare to act in accordance with the dictum that the ruler is the strength of the helpless,” Suu Kyi once opined. It remains to be seen if Suu Kyi will accept responsibility for the fate of the Rohingya under her civilian government.
Top image: November 2010. This was her official political trip with her party National League for Democracy (NLD) since 2003. | Htoo Tay Zar/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons License