(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 24 November, 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/suu-kyi-and-the-fight-for-democracy-in-myanmar/336364.html)
NOTE: This does not contain much opinion. It's a biography of Suu Kyi, and a round-up of the situation in Myanmar. No sarcasm either. I moonlight as a serious journalist, whaddyaknow.
It’s hard to imagine that a diminutive woman with a ready smile and a large flower in her hair has posed a threat to the powerful military junta that runs Myanmar, but Aung San Suu Kyi, the soft-spoken, well-educated Nobel Peace Laureate has spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest.
A staunch opponent of the junta’s totalitarian regime, which lasted 49 years, she is set to run for a parliamentary seat in by-elections, expected at the end of the year. The last time an election was held, in 1990, Suu Kyi’s party, National League for Democracy (NLD), won by a landslide, but was not allowed to take over. Instead, Suu Kyi was imprisoned.
Myanmar is now headed by a civilian government, with 48 seats for the taking in the new Senate and Lower House. However, this government itself is controlled by former generals of the junta. Last year, when Parliamentary polls were held, Suu Kyi’s NLD was dissolved for refusing to take part.
The NLD had been protesting against laws that would have prevented most of its members from becoming lawmakers – that those who have served sentences for crimes cannot take part in elections. But the Constitution has been amended to allow former political prisoners to participate in elections, and so the NLD has decided to re-enter the arena.
Its popular leader has been the subject of several movies, plays, and even songs. So, who is Aung San Suu Kyi, and what has she been fighting for?
The Rise of Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi was born on June 19, 1945 in the city of Rangoon, Burma, the daughter of General Aung San Kyi, the founder of the Burmese Army and the hero of Burma’s independence from the British Empire, and Daw Khin Kyi, who would become Burmese ambassador to India and Nepal.
General Aung San was assassinated when Suu Kyi was only two years old. Suu Kyi left Burma with her mother, when she was 15, and lived and studied in India, England, and the US. During her time in Oxford, she met her future husband, Michael Aris, with whom she went on to have two children.
In 1988, when she returned to her homeland, to take care of her ailing mother, Suu Kyi joined the pro-democracy movement. It so happened that that year, the military leader of Burma, General Ne Win, stepped down. On 8 August, 1988, there were massive demonstrations for democracy, which came to be known as the 8888 Uprising. However, this movement was brutally suppressed, and a new military junta took over in September.
But by this time, Suu Kyi was already a sensation. Half a million people had turned up at a rally she addressed on August 26, 1988, at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. She regularly delivered speeches on the importance of democracy for true freedom, and founded the National League for Democracy on 27 September 1988. During a speech at the Irrawaddy Delta in 1989, she ran into trouble with the junta. She was arrested in July, 1989, and has been leading the democracy movement from the confines of her house almost ever since. She was offered freedom if she left the country, but she refused.
Suu Kyi’s Life in the Nineties
In May 1990, the military junta called a general election, in which the NLD received 59% of the votes, which translated into 80% of the parliament seats. Suu Kyi, as political prisoner, had been barred from contesting, but she could still have become the Prime Minister, and was expected to. However, the junta nullified the elections, and placed under house arrest, where she remained for 6 years.
Throughout the nineties, she delivered speeches, wrote books, and mobilised pro-democracy movements. She won widespread international recognition, and awards including the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, which was accepted by her sons Alexander and Kim on her behalf. Suu Kyi used the prize money - $ 1.3 million – to open a charitable health and education trust for the people of Burma.
She remained in Burma even after her release, and the last time she met her husband was 1995. Soon after, Aris was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The junta refused to let him enter the country, despite appeals from the US, the UN, and even the Vatican. They said they did not have the facilities to provide him with medical care, and suggested Suu Kyi travel to meet him instead. Suu Kyi was unwilling to leave, fearing that she would not be allowed back into the country by the junta, despite its assurances. Aris passed away in 1999.
Suu Kyi’s life in Burma remained turbulent. On 9 November 1996, the convoy she was travelling in, with other leaders of the NLD, was attacked by a gang of about 200 men. An investigation was launched, but no action was taken.
She was regularly placed under house arrest, and denied visits by friends, family, and the media. She rarely met foreign diplomats and her own doctor, though she was often ill. She was hospitalised when her condition deteriorated, and then returned to her home. Under the 1975 State Protection Act, people could be imprisoned for up to 5 years without trial, and Suu Kyi was one of more than 2000 political prisoners in the country.
However, Suu Kyi was not entirely isolated. Reporters have occasionally been able to interview her in person, and she has also given telephonic interviews to media houses outside Burma. She even sent out statements, including a keynote address at the UN International Women's Conference in Beijing in August 1995.
The New Millennium and Suu Kyi’s Release
After confidence-building negotiations led by the UN, the junta finally agreed to release Suu Kyi in 2002. But the next year, a group of her supporters was attacked, and Suu Kyi, who fled from the scene, was later arrested, and housed in Insein Prison till September 2003. After that, she remained under house arrest.
While she was allowed to meet representatives of the UN at various points, Suu Kyi was denied freedom, and fresh charges were often slapped on her, including an accusation of evading taxes. The UN has been unable to pass resolutions against Myanmar, because of the junta’s strong ties with the powerful China, which votes against proposed sanctions. Along with most of Europe and the Americas, Suu Kyi has received support from India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Israel.
Suu Kyi made regular appearances in the media, throughout her incarceration. On 22 September 2007, she stepped out to the gate, to receive the blessings of a procession of Buddhist monks, who were marching in support of human rights. The monks had been leading demonstrations since 19 August that year, despite the threat of a crackdown by the military government.
On 3 May, 2009, an American man called John Yettaw trespassed into her home and was arrested when he swam back across the lake three days later. Yettaw had tried visiting her two years earlier too, and now claimed he had gone to her house to warn her of an impending assassination attempt, which he had learnt of through a ‘divine vision’. Suu Kyi was convicted on 13 May, for violating the terms of her house arrest by sheltering the man for 2 days. She was sentenced to 3 years’ hard labour in prison on 11 August 2009, despite international condemnation.
The sentence was commuted to further house arrest of 18 months, and Yettaw was deported back to the US, after the intervention of visiting US Senator Jim Webb. Over the next year, though, several democratic governments sent diplomats to Burma, to urge democratic reform. US President Barack Obama called for the release of Suu Kyi, along with other political prisoners, at the US-ASEAN Summit of 2009.
The next year, the military junta announced that there would be general elections. On 1 October 2010, the government said she would be released on 13 November 2010, six days after the elections were to be held. The election was won by the junta-backed party – Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and Suu Kyi was released as promised.
Since then, her son Kim has been granted a visa to Burma, and met his mother for the first time in 10 years. Suu Kyi has also held discussions with the Burmese government over the following year, and by October 2011, about a tenth of Burma’s political prisoners had been freed. In November 2011, NLD said it would re-register as a political party and contest in elections.
Why Did Suu Kyi Agree to Participate in Elections?
While she stayed away from the political system, which is seen as warped, until now, her decision to enter the fray has been hailed as the beginning of a transition to democracy in Myanmar.
After the NLD said it would re-register as a political party, Suu Kyi held a telephone conference with Obama, during the course of which he agreed that US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton would make a visit to Burma. Clinton also said economic sanctions against Burma would be eased only after the release of more political prisoners and the negotiation of a peace deal with ethnic minorities.
In a parliament that is being seen as a puppet of the junta, Suu Kyi’s presence – if she wins her seat, as expected – will be a crucial one, opening up the floor for debate on various issues she has been vocal about, and pushing the country closer to democracy.