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 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

May 23, 2003, 08:57:54 PM

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of one of Burma's most cherished heroes, the martyred General Aung San, who led his country's fight for independence from Great Britain in the 1940s and was killed for his beliefs in 1947. Suu Kyi has equaled her father's heroics with her calm but passionate advocacy of freedom and democracy in the country now called Myanmar, a name chosen by one of the most insensitive and brutal military dictatorships in the world.

The ruling junta -- "political party" would be too generous a concession -- goes by the Orwellian name of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Burma, or Myanmar, has a population of 45 million and is Southeast Asia's second largest country (in area) after Indonesia.

The news event that brought Suu Kyi back into prominence in May 2002 was her release from 19 months of house arrest in her barricaded villa in Yangon, formerly Rangoon. The United Nations helped to negotiate her release this time.

There was outrage around the world in 2000 when Suu Kyi tried to leave Yangon, only to be thwarted by authorities. In August of that year Suu Kyi, her driver and 14 members of her pro-democracy party were confined in two cars on the side of the road outside of Yangon. She endured a similar roadside standoff for 13 days in 1998, during which time she suffered severe dehydration and had to be returned to her home by ambulance.

Suu Kyi (pronounced Soo Chee) was two years old when her father -- the de facto prime minister of newly independent Burma -- was assassinated. Though a Buddhist -- the predominant religion of Burma -- she was educated at Catholic schools and left for India in her mid-teens with her mother, who became the Burmese ambassador to India. Suu Kyi went to England where she studied at Oxford University. There she met Michael Aris, the Tibetan scholar whom she married. They had two sons, Alexander and Kim.

A watershed in her life was 1988, when Suu Kyi received a call from Burma that her mother had suffered a stroke and did not have long to live. Suu Kyi returned to Burma, leaving her husband and two children behind in England, having cautioned them years earlier that duty may one day call her back to her homeland.

She arrived back in Burma to nurse her mother at a time of a burgeoning pro-democracy movement, fueled by the energy and idealism among the country's young people. There were demonstrations against the repressive, one-party socialist government. Suu Kyi was drawn into the pro-democracy movement, which was snuffed out by SLORC, which seized power on September 18, 1988. Thousands of pro-democracy advocates were killed.

Next came a general election in 1990, which political parties were allowed to contest. Suu Kyi headed the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a landslide victory, with over 80% support. This was not be tolerated by the SLORC leaders, who refused to recognize the election results. Worse, SLORC put the elected pro-democracy leaders under house arrest, including Suu Kyi.

Despite the restrictions of house arrest, Suu Kyi continued to campaign for democracy, and for this she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

One of Suu Kyi's most dramatic speeches was in 1995, soon after she was released from nearly six years of house arrest, when she spoke to a global women's conference in Beijing. She didn't appear at the conference, but spoke to the international gathering by means of a video smuggled out of Burma. Suu Kyi always expresses herself with calm conviction and calm passion, which reflects her Buddhist upbringing. She is Gandhian in her synergistic mixture of force and restraint.

In her speech, she said, "to the best of my knowledge, no war was ever started by women. But it is women and children who have always suffered the most in situations of conflict." She mentioned "the war toys of grown men." Without specifically targeting her SLORC opponents, but her words dripping with gentle sarcasm, Suu Kyi went on to say:

"There is an outmoded Burmese proverb still recited by men, who wish to deny that women too can play a part in bringing necessary change and progress to their society: 'The dawn rises only when the rooster crows.' But Burmese people today are well aware of the scientific reason behind the rising of dawn and the falling of dusk. And the intelligent rooster surely realizes that it is because dawn comes that it crows and not the other way around.

"It crows to welcome the light that has come to relieve the darkness of night. It is not the prerogative of men alone to bring light to the world: women with their capacity for compassion and self-sacrifice, their courage and perseverance, have done much to dissipate the darkness of intolerance and hate, suffering and despair."

It was a powerful speech, subtly crafted for the targeted audience in her homeland.

In 1999, Michael Aris, was dying of prostate cancer in England, where he lived with their two sons. He had repeatedly requested permission to visit his wife one last time before he died, but the SLORC authorities denied him entry, arguing that there are no proper facilities in the country to tend to a dying man. They suggested instead that Suu Kyi visit him in England. She refused, fearing if she ever left the country she would never be allowed to return.

The day Aris died, on his 53rd birthday on March 27, 1999, Suu Kyi honoured the occasion at her home in Rangoon, with 1,000 friends and supporters, including high-ranking diplomats from Europe and the United States. As part of a ceremony, she offered food and saffron robes to 53 Buddhist monks, one for each year of her husband's life. The monks recited prayers and chanted sutras. Instead of wearing her usual bright flowers and wreathes of jasmine, Suu Kyi chose instead a traditional black lungi with a white jacket. She cried only when one of the monks reminded the audience that the essence of Buddhism is to treat suffering with equanimity.

The police did not stop the supporters from visiting Suu Kyi in her time of grief. But they took the names and addresses of all those who attended at the service to honour the husband from whom she had been separated since she left England to tend to her dying mother.



Source: Martin O'Malley & Owen Wood (CBC News Online)






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