When awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was called “One of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades.” She has said that one of her inspirations was South Africa’s successful struggle to end apartheid led by peacemakers like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and others who never stopped working to make South Africans free from oppression.
At the beginning of this week, on Monday, October 3, 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s (Myanmar’s) pro-democracy leader, expressed worry about the hope of reaching unity and democracy in her country. She explained that the challenge remains to bring Myanmar’s many diverse ethnic groups together. Like so many other leaders in the non-violent civil disobedience tradition, Suu Kyi has sacrificed much in the cause of bringing Myanmar out of its 20-year isolation into the bright dawn of democracy. After 15 years of detention, she was finally released in late 2010. She also suffered the cruel punishment of not being able to see her beloved husband one last time before he died as the government denied his request to travel from England to Burma in the last few months of his life.
Suu Kyi’s story is one of personal activism in the present-day that is a model for people who value the ultimate goal of worldwide peace, beginning with what they can do within their own cultures to instill the tradition of non-violence. It is not surprising that this daughter of Aung San, Commander of the Burma Independence Army until 1947, would be focused on creating and supporting a democracy in her homeland. Her father was assassinated in 1947 when Suu Kyi was just two years old, and soon after, her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, became active in politics, resulting in her appointment as Burma’s ambassador to India in 1960. It was there that Suu Kyi began a stellar academic career that took her to Oxford University in England for an undergraduate degree and then on to Kyoto University as a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. During this time she published significant work in academic literature, met and married her husband, Professor Michael Aris, and started a family with the birth of her two sons.
In 1988 Suu Kyi returned to Rangoon from her home in England to care for her mother who had been stricken by a stroke. While there, she observed the unrest around her and began her public life, making speeches protesting the government’s ban on more than four people gathering for a meeting as well as making arrests without trials. By September 1988 when the National League for Democracy was established, Suu Kyi found herself serving as General-Secretary, with a national platform from which she could support non-violent disobedience as the way toward democracy in Burma. In December of that same year, her beloved mother, Daw Khin Kyi died, and Suu Kyi committed her life to the service of Burma, following in the footsteps of both her mother and father.
Aung San Suu Kyi could easily have stayed in England, as a successful academic contributing important work about the political and economic cultures of Asia, but she chose the more difficult path of personal activism. Instead of staying safely out of harm’s way in England with her husband and children, she took a step requiring a very special kind of courage—to put the good of the many above her own needs, mirroring the commitment her parents demonstrated toward freedom for all within Burma.
When she spoke this week to students in Johannesburg, she asked that the World watch events in Burma closely, and speak out as part of the global community against the atrocities reported to be happening at the hands of the army right now. Aung San Suu Kyi assures us that “We are determined to make a success of our struggle for democracy. We are not just going to sit. We are going to move to get to where we want to go.” Given the great courage Suu Kyi has shown over more than two decades since she returned to Burma to care for her mother, it is safe to say that she is a leader with unwavering purpose. She counts among her friends other great peacemakers like Archbishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela, His Holiness The Dalai Lama, and Gro Harlem Brundtland. Aung San Suu Kyi, like her friends, is an inspirational light shining on the path of peace for us all to take together into the future.