Happy Wednesday! I’m really excited about today’s Women in History post, as today we’ll focus on one of my biggest inspirations. I first learned about this woman briefly in the summer world geography class I was in before freshman year; when we were released that day I went home and immediately got on the computer to research her for hours. The first biography I ever read by choice was about her. Even now, I have a poster of Shepard Fairey’s “Freedom to Lead” print up on my wall, a constant reminder to strive for the good and rights of my fellow humans. Let’s get started, before I get too gushy about how amazing I think she is; this week’s WCW is Aung San Suu Kyi.
I lied – quick side note first. If you’re at all familiar with Suu Kyi, you probably know that her efforts have been focused on the people and country of Burma or as it’s known today, Myanmar. Before we get going too far, I need to clarify that I’ll be referring to the country as Burma, as that is what Suu Kyi prefers it to be called (explanation at 2:48 here). I understand that it’s globally accepted as Myanmar, but for this post, we’re calling it Burma. Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s begin.
Aung San Suu Kyi was born on June 19th, 1945 in Rangoon, Burma to an extremely politically involved family; her father, General Aung San, was the prime minister of British-held Burma then led the Burmese independence movement, and her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, was the diplomatic ambassador to both India and Nepal. After General Aung San’s assassination in 1947, Khin Kyi, Suu Kyi, and her two siblings moved to India, where Suu Kyi attended Methodist East High School. Following graduation, Suu Kyi studied politics at Lady Shri Ram College until her graduation in 1964, then moved to the University of Oxford to earn a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics at St Hugh’s College by 1969. Suu Kyi met Dr. Michael Aris during her time at Oxford, and the two wed in 1971 and later had two sons. For the next three years, she worked as a budgetary writer for the United Nations. In 1985, Suu Kyi enrolled in a research program at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, graduating with a masters’ of philosophy in 1987. In order to take care of her mother, who had suffered a stroke, Suu Kyi moved back to Burma in 1988 – upon seeing the state of nation, which was brutally run by a military junta, Suu Kyi reentered the political sphere as a voice for basic human rights and freedoms.
Suu Kyi began her work by giving public speeches against the government’s inhumane treatment of the Burmese citizens and soon caught the attention of authority figures suspicious of her growing following. On September 27th, 1988 she founded the National League for Democracy (DNL) based on the principles of Buddhist teachings and the nonviolent protests of Mahatma Gandhi, in the hopes of increasing her presence in regards to human rights and the freedoms possible with democratic governments. Ten months later, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for “her treasonous speeches,” beginning her twenty-one year stretch as a political prisoner; between 1989 and 2010, Suu Kyi spent a little over fifteen years total under house arrest. For this first offense, she was released in less than a year, in time to run in the Election of 1990, the first democratic style election ever in Burma. At first, the election went extremely well for Suu Kyi, as the DNL won a majority of the seats in parliament and she looked to be the leading prime minister candidate. However, upon seeing these results, the junta nullified the election and again placed Suu Kyi under house arrest until 1995 for “undermining community peace and stability.” While detained, Suu Kyi was awarded the Sakharov and the Nobel Peace Prizes in 1991, which one of her sons had to collect for her because she was imprisoned. Between arrests in 1996, Suu Kyi was traveling with a group of NDL leaders and members when a violent 200-man assault rained down on them, killing several and injuring more. Suu Kyi and members of the NDL were punished for this episode, and Suu Kyi spent the next several years in and out of house arrest – starting in 2003, her sentence was simply renewed annually. Throughout the mid 2000’s, the United Nations attempted to intervene in favor of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, at one point even issuing an updated Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it was not accepted by the Burmese government. Finally in November of 2010, after much negotiation between the junta and leaders from around the world, all political prisoners in Burma were freed.
With Suu Kyi back and stronger than ever, the junta grew nervous. In 2010, legislation was passed that made anyone one with a criminal background or anyone related to a non-Burmese bloodline ineligible to run for prime minister, effectively barring Suu Kyi from office. In response, the NLD didn’t register as a party that year as an act of solidarity. The legislation remained in 2011, but the party reregistered and Suu Kyi set her goals on being elected into a parliamentary seat. In May 2012, she accomplished this feat, and was sworn in on the 2nd of the month. During this term, Suu Kyi was able to take her first trip out of Burma since 1988, and so visited her family and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and also made a stop in Norway to give her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize. Later that year, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, becoming the first person to win it for their efforts while imprisoned. Suu Kyi was also awarded many honorary degrees, doctorates, and fellowships from universities across the globe.
This is not generally the norm, but as Suu Kyi is still politically active, we’ll touch on really recent events. I originally meant to put out this post in November, when the Burmese elections were being held, but I’m glad I didn’t, because now I can somewhat talk about how things turned out. The Burmese government has changed since 2011 – the military rule has greatly reduced its autocratic rule, and the government is now more civilian-run than it has been in the last half century. However, the legal requirements are still in place, so Suu Kyi couldn’t run for president, but she re-won her seat in parliament. As of this moment, over half of the seats in parliament are held by the NLD, making Suu Kyi the opposition leader. For more about the results, check out this BBC article.
To learn more about Aung San Suu Kyi’s revolutionary life, check out these bio., Famous People, Britannica, and CNN posts. Additionally, a movie about Suu Kyi titled “The Lady” came out in 2012 – I’ve yet to see it, but from the looks of the trailer it seems intense and fairly accurate. I’ll try to get a hold of and review it soon, but if you beat me to it, let me know what you think! Speaking of “The Lady,” before we finish, let me quickly explain that title. Up until about 2010, even mentioning Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma could get you in heaps of legal trouble, so people would refer to her as “The Lady” to avoid punishment. And that’s a wrap!
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays!