Aung San Suu Kyi

In 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi (born 1945) became the preeminent leader in Burma (now Myanmar) of the movement toward the reestablishment of democracy in that state. In 1991, while under house arrest, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Aung San Suu Kyi was internationally recognized as a vibrant symbol of resistance to authoritarian rule. On July 20, 1989, she was placed under house arrest by the military coup leaders, called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), who came to power in Myanmar on September 18, 1988, in the wake of a popular but crushed uprising against the previous, and also military headed socialist government. The nation's name had been changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1980.

Aung San Suu Kyi came from a distinguished Burmese family. Her father, Bogyoke (Generalissimo) Aung San, is known as the founder of independent Burma in 1948 and is widely revered in that country. He negotiated independence from the British and was able to weld the diverse ethnic groups together through the force of his personality and the trust he engendered among all groups. He was assassinated, along with most of his cabinet, by a disaffected Burmese politician, U (Mr.) Saw, on July 22, 1947, prior to independence on January 4, 1948. That day remains a national remembrance holiday in Myanmar. His loss slowed the realization of state unity.

Aung San Suu Kyi was born in Burma on June 19, 1945. She spent her early years in Burma and then joined her mother, Daw Khin Kyi (all names in Burma are individual; there are no surnames), who was appointed as Burmese ambassador to India in 1960. She was partly educated in secondary school in India and then attended St. Hugh's College, Oxford University, where she received her bachelor's and master's degrees studying politics, economics, and philosophy. For two years she worked in the United Nations Secretariat in New York. In 1972 she married Michael Vaillancourt Aris, a well-known scholar on Central Asia, Tibet, and Bhutan. They had two sons, Alexander (born in 1973 and also known by his Burmese name, Myint San Aung) and Kim (born in 1977 and also called Htein Lin).

During 1985 and 1986, Aung San Suu Kyi was a visiting scholar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, and in 1987 she was a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Simla.

Daw Khin Kyi, her mother, had a stroke in 1988, and Aung San Suu Kyi came back to Rangoon, Myanmar, to help nurse her. While there, the tumultuous events of 1988 that convulsed the country took place. The popular rising against the previous socialist regime associated with the militarily-led Burma Socialist Party regime was a mass revolt against an authoritarian and economically failed administration. This revolt started as an apolitical student brawl; it was handled poorly by the military and spread, becoming a vehicle for expression of the pent-up political and economic frustrations dating from the earlier coup of 1962.

On August 26, 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi gained national recognition as the effective leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), later opposed to the military-led SLORC. Aung San Suu Kyi became the general secretary of the National League for Democracy and was a charismatic and effective speaker in favor of democracy throughout the country. She was placed under house arrest by the SLORC for attempting to split the army, a charge she consistently denied.

Although she was not allowed to run for election in the May 27, 1990, election, her party, the NLD, much to the astonishment and chagrin of the military, won 80 percent of the legislative seats. They were never permitted to take office. For the first years of her house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi was not allowed to have any visitors, but later her immediate family was allowed to be with her on occasional trips to Myanmar. In January of 1994 the first visitor outside of her family, U.S. Congressman Bill Richardson, a Democrat from New Mexico, was allowed to meet with her. She was recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. The United Nations and a large number of other national and international groups called for her unconditional release. She won many awards for democracy and human rights, including the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (European Parliament, 1991), the Nobel Peace Prize (1991), and the International Simon Bolivar Prize (UNESCO, 1992).

Aung San Suu Kyi remained under military surveillance and house arrest until July of 1995. The government continually restricted her movement throughout both the country and abroad. During Suu Kyi's first year of freedom, she was only permitted brief travel in and around her home city of Rangoon and did not travel outside of Myanmar. She continued, however, to serve as the vocal leader of the NLD and push for democracy.

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Further Reading on Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi has written extensively on the life of her father, on a variety of events in Burma, on intellectual life in Burma and India under colonialism, and on literature and nationalism in Burma. These and other works and speeches, including several appreciations of her life and accomplishments, were published in English in 1991 as Freedom From Fear and Other Writings. See also David I. Steinberg, "The Future of Burma, Crisis and Choice in Myanmar," Asian Agenda Report #14 (1990). More information about Aung San Suu Kyi is contained in "Stalking the Stunt Princess" Time International (July 8, 1996).

Additional Biography Sources

Parenteau, John, Prisoner for peace: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's struggle for democracy, Greensboro, N.C.: Morgan Reynolds, 1994.