As the release of Aung San Suu Kyi garners considerable media attention, Bríd Doherty examines why this is a milestone in the fight for democracy in Burma
Inspired by Gandhi and Nelson Mandela before her, Aung San Suu Kyi has become a figurehead for peaceful resistance in the face of injustice and oppression. For the past 20 years, she has campaigned for democracy in her homeland of Burma. She is at the helm of the NLD (National League for Democracy), who are the leading opposition to the military-backed government.
Suu Kyi recalled: “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on.” Her involvement in the struggle for democracy began in 1988, when Burma was in the throes of a political upheaval. Citizens from all walks of life took to the streets demanding reform. Suu Kyi rose to the challenge and stepped in to lead the struggle against subjugation.
The army, prior to staging a coup in 1988, quelled the demonstrations. Two years later, they called national elections. The NLD were victorious, but the military refused to relinquish control and have ruled Burma with an iron fist ever since. At this point, Suu Kyi was held under house arrest and was not allowed to put herself before the polls.
Since then, Suu Kyi has been repeatedly placed under house arrest. It is evident that the government have used the slightest excuses to curtail her freedom and place her behind locked doors. She has spent the majority of the past 20 years in some form of detention. The military government saw her as a threat to their regime and feared her popularity amongst the Burmese people.
Furthermore, it has been alleged that senior generals refuse to allow Suu Kyi’s name to be mentioned in their presence. She was released from house arrest in 1995 after being held for six years. In 2000, she was put under house arrest again when she broke government travel restrictions. In 2002, she was released unconditionally but was once again denied her freedom after her supporters engaged in a clash with a government-allied mob.
Suu Kyi spent her time in confinement studying and exercising. When asked about confinement, she said that it never had a scarring effect on her, as she felt free because her mind was still free.
The November 2010 elections were boycotted by the NLD. The party declined to contest because of the unfairness of the election laws. Under new Burmese election laws, the NLD then had to disband.
However, certain party members formed a new party in order to contest the elections, preferring to offer some kind of representation rather than none. The undoubtedly rigged elections have left the military government in a position of strength. The government evidently feel that they were in a position where they could release Suu Kyi without her posing a serious threat to their control. They clearly believe themselves to be in a strong enough position to curtail her supporters. Whether or not they are right will remain to be seen.
In 1991, Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize but could not travel to accept it. The committee chairman, Francis Sejested, called her “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless”.
Suu Kyi’s chosen path in life is one that has been tainted by great sacrifice. She has spent the past 20 years far from the company of her husband and two sons who lived in the UK, and has grandchildren that she has never met.
Perhaps the most tragic sacrifice that she had to make was that of not being by her husband’s side during the last days before his death. The Burmese authorities gave her permission to travel to the UK to be with him, but she felt compelled to refuse, as she feared she would not be allowed to re-enter the country.
Recommencing her life as a free woman, Suu Kyi’s aims have withstood the hardship of house arrest. She has often said that detention has made her even surer that she should dedicate her life to the average Burmese citizen. She has also recently been reunited with her youngest son after a long separation.
It is clear that Suu Kyi will strive to bring freedom, democracy and a sense of hope to the people of Burma. She is aiming to start a peaceful revolution. She is hoping to engage in talks with the ruling generals and compel them to embrace democracy.
Her very name and image light a small flicker of hope in the heart of the people of Burma. Here, before them, is a woman who has given every aspect of her life to lead the struggle against dictatorship and brutality in Burma. One can only hope that her release will inspire the people of Burma to fight to quash the cruelty and oppression of the military that has ruled their lives for so many years.