In this year of the woman, a geopolitical event of seismic proportions hit the headlines on April Fools day, but it was no joke. Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to the lower house of the Myanmar (formerly Burma) parliament. This is right up there with South Africa’s Nelson Mandela’s accomplishments in terms of tenacity, danger, courage and it’s impact on the world’s political landscape.
There are many similarities between the two. Mandela, as the head of the Militant Anti-Apartheid wing of the African National Congress (ANC) was convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life in prison. He served 27 years. As an anti-government activist, Suu Kyi was under house arrest or imprisoned for a cumulative total of 15 years between 1989 – 2010. She was basically allowed no contact with the media or her fellow party members and political allies. Her assorted confinements ended for good in November of 2010. Mandela went on to become president of South Africa, 4 years after his release from prison. No less a triumph, was Suu Kyi’s election to parliament, April 1st. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) captured 40 of the 45 vacant seats. She could very well trod further in Mandela’s shoes come 2015, the date of Myanmar’s next presidential election.
Suu Kyi comes from political aristocracy. Her father, Aung San, fondly remembered as ‘the Father of Burmese Independence’, founded the Burmese Army. He was the head of the Burmese independence movement and later chief negotiator for the final split from the British Empire. Independence was made official in 1947. That same year political rivals assassinated Aung San. Though the perpetrators were quickly caught there remains a question to this day of Britain’s possible involvement in aiding them.
Suu Kyi’s mother, Khin Kyi was also a formidable political figure. She was appointed ambassador to India and Nepal. Suu Kyi subsequently followed her mother to the assignment and received her higher education in India and, ironically, England. She rose to the academic rank earning a PhD at the University of London.
As a young woman, she briefly worked in the U.N. under the tutelage of then Burmese Secretary-General U Thant. Suu Kyi later went back to India to work but returned to Burma to tend to her ailing mother in 1988.
Shortly after Suu Kyi’s return General Ne Win left his position as head of the ruling party. This move triggered calls throughout Burma for a democratic regime. Government troops subsequently killed a student activist on the grounds of the Rangoon Institute of Technology. This killing and the people’s desire for a democratic government led to a mass demonstration and ten pro-democracy demands. The action was initially student-led and originated in Rangoon. The demonstration was soon joined by all strata of Burmese society. The movement soon spread to other major Burmese cities. Participants in such demonstrations were met with a violet military reaction in an event characterized as the 8888 uprising. The four 8’s stood for month day and year.
When the shooting stopped, thousands had been slain by the Burmese Armed Forces. To this day ‘8888 uprising’ remains the rallying cry for those Myanmar citizens wishing for freedom and democracy.
On August 26th Suu Kyi addressed more than a half-million people in a pro-democracy rally in brave defiance of the repressive administration. Less than a month later a new military junta took over the reigns of Burmese government and changed the name from Burma to Myanmar. Rangoon was also changed to Yangon. Britain and for the most part the U.S. refuse to recognize the new name changes. Go to the CIA World Factbook and the country heading is still Burma.
The Junta did allow for ‘free’ elections in 1990 and Suu Kyi’s NLD party dominated the vote, a meaningless victory as it turned out. The junta simply nullified the vote, maintained power and placed Suu Kyi under the first of numerous house arrests. In recognition of her unceasing efforts, Suu Kyi won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. As yet another example of their geopolitical similarities, Mandela was to take the prize two years later.
In 1996, now free of house arrest, a NLD party motorcade in which Suu Kyi was riding was attacked by a couple of hundred government-hired thugs wielding assorted weaponry. They shattered windows but Kyi escaped injury. Again, like Mandela she experienced a close brush with death. She was soon to be re-imprisoned.
In 2002, Suu Kyi was again freed. A year later, in a deadly repeat of the 1996 attack another group of government goons descended on villagers riding in a pro-Suu Kyi caravan. This time it was much worse with a number of supporters killed and wounded. Suu Kyi escaped injury when her alert driver fled the scene, in all likelihood saving her life. She was later caught and locked up once more – in a prison this time. She underwent a hysterectomy and was placed under house arrest yet again.
It was at this point the UN intervened and repeatedly requested that her captors set her free. They refused insisting that Suu Kyi was merely in ‘protective custody’. Eventually, the junta complied and finally allowed her to return to her pursuit of democracy.
Secretary of Sate Hillary Clinton visited Burma last November and may have paved the way for surprising reforms and Suu Kyi’s election Both President Barack Obama and Clinton talked with Suu Kyi before the visit. Newly elected Burmese President, Thein Sein, considered to be on the repressive side, nonetheless relaxed restrictions on the media, labor unions and political parties. While far from ideal, things are looking up in Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi is an exceedingly brave, brilliant and committed example of an activist life well lived. She proves you don’t have to be male, 6’3, 250 lbs and Rambo-armed to the teeth to make a real difference in this world. She makes even cynics like me proud. I wish Suu Kyi more victories and hopefully the presidency in her pursuit of justice for the people and country she loves.