Tue, Jun 19, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Aung San Suu Kyi never sought to lead

The Burmese pro-democracy campaigner, who hates being described as a saint or an icon, has faced renewed challenges since her release from house arrest

By Jason Burke  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Yusha

One evening early this year in Yangon, Myanmar, a 65-year-old woman went to the cinema — on the face of it an unremarkable occurrence. Except that the woman was Aung San Suu Kyi and the films she was watching, on a makeshift screen in a shopping mall, showed monks on the march, beatings by riot police, apparent abductions and even firefights between ethnic minority militias and the Burmese army.

The screening was unprecedented; nothing like it had occurred in the 50 years since Myanmar’s military had taken power. Between 1988 — when the democracy movement had first been bloodied in clashes with the authorities — and mid-2010 — when change had begun to come — participating in such an event would have meant imprisonment, torture and possibly death.

Now, a second screen outside the mall relayed the images for a crowd of hundreds gathered on the sidewalk.

Among them was Ei Thu, a 28-year-old accountant.

“I don’t really care about politics, but I love Aung San Suu Kyi. I don’t care what party she is from. I want her to be president,” she said.

The pro-democracy leader watched the images of violence and repression impassively. Only after the screening, when a young man, head of security for the youth wing of her National League of Democracy and one of Myanmar’s best-known hip-hop artists, took the stage to perform did she smile. A measure of how fast Myanmar is changing is that the 31-year-old musician became a member of parliament in recent elections.

For a long time, the world paid little attention to Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi may have enjoyed a global celebrity on a level with former South African president Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama, but few people could pronounce her name or point on a map to the city where she lived. This too is changing.

Brief biography

Born: June 19, 1945.

Age: 67.

Career: Campaigner for democracy and human rights.

High point: Release from house arrest in November 2010 and successive subsequent releases of Burmese political prisoners.

Low point: Separation from and eventual death of her husband from cancer in 1999.

What she says: “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

What they say: “Her grace and forbearance despite all she has been through is a lesson to us all.” — Desmond Tutu.


Aung San Suu Kyi was born in 1945 in the middle of a war as UK forces, aided by Burmese nationalists, ousted the Japanese invaders. Her father was Aung San, the rough-tongued, charismatic leader of the Burmese effort for independence from their imperial overlords.

This is, many say, the primary determining factor of her personality and her life. She delivered her first major political speech at a vast rally at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon in 1988, beneath a giant screenprint of the father of the nation.

“It is difficult to overestimate the importance of her father and what he did, for her,” says Peter Popham, Aung San Suu Kyi’s biographer.

Critics say that she fits the familiar local profile of the dynastic heir to power, but though across much of Asia, the sons or daughters of colonial liberators or later leaders either hold high offices or are close to doing so, Aung San Suu Kyi, despite her background, never sought to lead.

A long-standing acquaintance said the influence of her parents explains why she accepted the role when asked to assume it, with all the sacrifices it would entail. Aung San was assassinated when his daughter was two years old and she was raised by her formidable mother.

“She was very strict, very hardworking ... with high moral standards. If [Aung San Suu Kyi] got ambition from her father, she got a very strong sense of duty from her mother,” the friend said.

A journalist remembered how, during a relatively frosty interview in the mid-1990s, the only question that elicited any warmth was about her mother.

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