She may weigh only 100 pounds and wear flowers in her hair, but the remarkable Aung San Suu Kyi could be Myanmar's greatest hope for peace.
If you’ve turned on your TV lately, you know that all is not well in Myanmar. Since 1988, a military junta has controlled power in the otherwise peaceful Buddhist Asian country formerly known as Burma – and as recent events demonstrate, the friction between the oppressive government and its citizens is only growing worse. But despite the brutality you might hear about, Myanmar is full of remarkable people striving to make their voices heard: The tens of thousands of monks who’ve risked their lives to peacefully march the city streets, the bloggers and citizen journalists who’ve shared their accounts of the violent uprisings with the outside world, and perhaps most of all, the would-be democratic leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Look at a photo of Suu Kyi, and you’d never point her out as the most powerful individual in a country of nearly 50 million people: The waif-like 64-year-old woman weighs no more than 100 pounds, and often wears a colorful flower in her dark hair. But despite her demure appearance, she is a woman of steely resolve who has devoted her life to the struggle for democracy in Myanmar.
As the daughter of a famous general who had freed the country from British rule in 1947, Suu Kyi spent her childhood in Myanmar, but continued her education overseas in England, where she met and married college professor Dr. Michael Aris. She and Aris had two sons together, and were living an idyllic life in Bhutan when Suu Kyi received word that her mother, back in Myanmar, had fallen ill. Suu Kyi decided to fly home temporarily to nurse her mother – but her plans quickly changed.
When Suu Kyi arrived in Myanmar in 1988, the streets were full of monks, students, and workers protesting the rise of the new military regime. During the protests, hundreds of demonstrators were massacred on the orders of the brutal new government. Suu Kyi knew that she could simply return to her unfettered life with her family after she had fulfilled her duties to her mother – or she could stay and take action. For her, the choice was clear: “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on,” she said in a speech.
So the tiny woman summoned her father’s conviction to support her beloved country’s independence – and became the unlikely leader of a sweeping movement for change. She began to travel around the country organizing peaceful rallies, giving speeches that called for free elections and democratic reform. She helped found a new political party, the National League for Democracy, which promoted freedom and democracy for all the nation’s citizens. In 1990, Suu Kyi and her party won an overwhelming victory in the country’s democratic elections – but sadly, Suu Kyi wasn’t given the chance to assume her rightful post as Prime Minister.
Instead, the military junta refused to give up power, and Suu Kyi was given a choice: Leave the country, or go under house arrest. Suu Kyi chose house arrest, where she has remained, with limited interludes of freedom, for the last 17 years. For her devotion and strength, Suu Kyi was honored with the Freedom of Thought award in 1990, and the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. She used the Nobel’s $1.3 million prize money to create a health and education trust for the people of Myanmar.
Suu Kyi’s conviction to her country has cost her dearly: She’s lost not only her freedom, but her family as well. Tragically, Suu Kyi’s husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997. He was denied an entry visa to Myanmar, and Suu Kyi feared that if she left the country, she would never be permitted to return – so she never had the chance to say goodbye to her husband before his death in 1999.
Today, Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, but her spirits are strong. “I’ve always felt free because they have not been able to do anything to what really mattered,” she told ABC News. “And once you’re free inside, once you feel, ‘I can accept something that happens to me as long as I am working for something right’ ... then I think you are free.”