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A life for Myanmar

Rodion Ebbighausen / gdApril 8, 2014

Aung San Suu Kyi is acclaimed internationally for her long struggle against Myanmar’s military junta that ruled the country until 2011. But criticism has mounted ever since she re-entered active politics.

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi
Image: dapd

On April 11, Aung San Suu Kyi will receive the Willy Brandt Prize, which is awarded by Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) to individuals or institutions promoting international understanding between peoples.

Suu Kyi is one of the most famous politicians of our time, having received several awards including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, the Sakharov Prize in 1990 and the US Congressional Gold Medal in 2008, among others. As US President Barack Obama said during his 2012 trip to Myanmar - formerly known as Burma: "Here, through so many difficult years, is where she has displayed such unbreakable courage and determination. It is here where she showed that human freedom and human dignity cannot be denied."


In an interview with the magazine "Vanity Fair" Suu Kyi explained that her sense of duty came from her family: "I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on." Her father, General Aung San was assassinated by rivals in 1947 after having led Myanmar to independence, and he remains a national hero.

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (L) holds her 1990 Sakharov Prize, besides European Parliament President Martin Schulz during an award ceremony in Strasbourg, October 22, 2013.
Suu Kyi is one of the most famous politicians of our timeImage: Reuters

After his death, his wife Khin Kyi served as a member of the country's first post-independence parliament, and was appointed ambassador to India in 1960.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself was also politically active, especially during her studies in Oxford, but had no inkling then that she would become the icon of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement.

Overcoming fear

Suu Kyi quickly became one of the most prominent critics of the military-led government, advocating non-violent resistance. "I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons," she told the British daily "The Guardian."

"It is not power that corrupts but fear," wrote Suu Kyi for a speech titled "Freedom from Fear"on the occasion of the Sakharov Prizeaward ceremony in 1990. "Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it," she added.

A Theravada Buddhist, she referred to spiritual concepts, to Mahatma Gandhi and ancient Indian philosophy to outline her own beliefs, saying that corruption and violence could only be overcome if people accepted responsibility for the needs of others.

Bittersweet victory

In 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won the general elections by a landslide. However, the results were nullified and the junta set about arresting opponents. Suu Kyi was subsequently placed under house arrest where she spent more than 15 years of her life.

A photograph made available on 8 May 2009 showing a small boat stopping along a lake at the rear of Aung San Suu Kyi's home in Yangon, Myanmar.
Suu Kyi was under house arrest at this location for 15 yearsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

During this time, the government always gave her the option to leave the country, be it to visit her fatally ill husband or to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. But she constantly refused, fearing that she might not be allowed back in and could lose all political influence.

A politician, not an icon

In 2010, the military regime swapped uniforms for civilian clothes, and made way for the opening up of the country. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and was elected to Parliament in the April 2012 by-elections. For the first time in her life, she was now able to use her mandate to implement her political ideas.

Journalist Zeya Thu says that Suu Kyi was largely unknown to the people of Myanmar before 2012. People only knew that she had been placed under house arrest and opposed the military regime. But things are now different: "She used to be an icon of democracy, today, she is a politician." This means that she must now also come to terms with the sometimes tricky and dirty rules of the political establishment.

In light of this, it didn't take long for opponents to accuse her of failing to take care of ethnic minorities and of making deals with her former enemies in the military. They also criticized her party, the NLD, for having an authoritarian leadership style.

According to Zeya Thu, Suu Kyi has so far been more effective as an icon. "However, she prefers to be a politician, rather than an icon," because that's the only way to bring about real change.

Her political ideas could become reality if she is allowed to contest the 2015 presidential elections. Suu Kyi already announced her intention of doing so last year, but she has so far been prevented by a clause in the current constitution barring people married to foreigners from standing for president.

Suu Kyi's late husband was British and her two sons are British citizens. But Zeya Thu remains optimistic: "As relations between Suu Kyi and the military today are better than in the past, it is increasingly likely that the constitution will be amended."