By Rebecca Riezebos
In a world still dominated by violence and war, it would seem prudent that an updated Temple of Worthies should contain at least one of the major political peace advocates of the twentieth century. Of course the names that spring to mind include Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi all of whom would be worthy in their own right. However I would like to suggest someone less obvious but just as worthy. Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese opposition leader and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. While she is a current political figure, her status as an important historical figure is already set in stone.
Her father Aung San brought an end to British colonial rule and established the modern day Burmese army. When Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 she saw the country in a terrible state of upheaval under the dictator Ne Win. In a speech in Rangoon on 26 August 1988 she said, ”I could not as my father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on.” She began to lead peaceful rallies and demonstrations in a fight for democratic reform and free elections however a military junta crushed the movement and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. Between 1989 and 2010 she was under house arrest for 15 years.
Her efforts had not gone unnoticed by the international community even at this early stage in her fight for freedom. She received the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize although she was only able to formally accept it in person over twenty years later for fear of leaving Burma and not being allowed to return.
‘The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Burma) for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.
Suu Kyi’s struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression…
In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means.’
It is during these years of confinement under house arrest that the depth of her commitment to the solving the plight of Burmese people was most strongly testified. Despite being technically disqualified from the national elections in 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won, which showed the outstanding support she had from the people. Of course the junta did not recognise this and remained in power. Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest until 1995.
In 1997 Suu Kyi’s husband Dr. Michael Aris, whom she had met while studying in England, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The extent of the involvement to persuade the Burmese government to allow Aris a visa shows the international recognition for Suu Kyi and her importance to Burma. Appeals came from the UN Secretary General, the US government and Pope John Paul II. However this was all in vain. The government refused on the grounds of inadequate healthcare but did give Suu Kyi permission to leave the country to visit him in England. She was afraid that if she left, the government would never allow her back in and therefore decided to stay in Burma. This decision meant she never saw her husband again as he died in 1999. Perhaps the military junta underestimated Suu Kyi’s commitment and thought they had triumphed. Whatever the circumstances surrounding their offer to let her leave, Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision consolidated her position to the people as unwavering, even in times of personal tragedy.
Placed under house arrest twice more for various infringements of the military restrictions placed upon her, she still maintained as much of a connection as possible with her supporters and the international community, who continued to fight for her release. In 2010 Burma ran elections for the first time in 20 years which the NLD boycotted on the grounds of inaccurate voting lists. Aung San Suu Kyi was released six days after the election, possibly because the military felt they were more equipped to handle her supporters.
In the 2012 by-elections Aung San Su Kyi was elected leader of the opposition when the NLD was elected to 43 of the 45 contested seats. However Burma is still a country in breach of human rights of many of its people and Aung San Suu Kyi’s position in Burma’s political sphere is anything but certain. Despite suggestions that she would run for president in the 2015 elections, the Constitution created in 2008 does not allow those who are a widow or a mother to foreigners to run, both of which relate very closely to Aung San Suu Kyi’s situation, suggesting these elements were chosen specifically to make her illegible. Burma’s current political position gives Suu Kyi’s most famous speech, Freedom from Fear, which she gave in 1990, a sustaining relevance:
“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.”
While there is still much progress to be made in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts have been noticed both at home and internationally. She had stayed strong to her cause in the face of constant adversity and should be recognised for this. The sacrifices she has made in her personal life are telling of the commitment she has shown to her people and for the cause she stands for. Her devotion to a country perhaps often forgotten in the global picture has reminded the world of the importance and power of international cooperation which is the key to making this world a more stable and peaceful place.