Aung San Suu Kyi: Leading the Burmese Democracy Movement

Vision and Motivation

Burma was under British control from 1824 to 1948, when General Aung San, the founder of Burma’s modern military, successfully negotiated Burma’s independence from the United Kingdom. But less than a year after Aung San’s political victory, he was assassinated by rivals within the military. In 1962, the military consolidated its power with a coup that overthrew the government and established a military junta led by General Ne Win and his Socialist Program Party. The 50 years since the junta’s rise have been marred by a regime that brought fear and poverty to Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, was born in 1945, three years before Burma’s independence and her father's assassination. After leaving the country in the early 1960s for schooling and a position at the United Nations, Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 to be with her ailing mother. She returned to a brewing maelstrom in the country. General Ne Win had just resigned, leaving a vacuum in political leadership; there was growing discontent over the economy and massive, countrywide protests on August 8, 1988. The military cracked down on the pro-democracy demonstrations, killing thousands of protesters.[1]

At a rally of half a million people in Rangoon just three weeks later, Suu Kyi, already in a position of great political influence as the daughter of General Aung San, called for a democratic government on August 26. But a new military junta, led by General Saw Maung, forcefully took control on September 18. In response, Suu Kyi helped establish the National League for Democracy (NLD) and has remained the party’s Secretary General since its founding on September 27, 1988. Yet once the government realized that a sizable political movement was forming behind Suu Kyi’s democratic ideals, she was placed under house arrest on July 21, 1989. [2]

Goals and Objectives

Aung San Suu Kyi has devoted her life to the achievement of a free and open Burma, one in which the military junta is replaced by a democratically elected government that respects human rights. In 1988, Suu Kyi believed the best way to achieve that goal was for the NLD to defeat the military junta in national elections. In the party’s first election in 1990, the NLD won 83% of the parliamentary seats. Suu Kyi, who had been campaigning while under house arrest, was slated to become Prime Minister. Election monitors around the world recognized the fairness of the 1990 elections. Nevertheless, the military junta rejected the results and refused to relinquish its power. It was clear significant violations of civil and political liberties were taking place. [3]

In the face of this obstacle, Suu Kyi’s tactics shifted, and she began using her house arrest as a platform to publicize Burmese human rights violations to the international community. Despite lack of access to the international political arena and media while under house arrest, Suu Kyi continued to communicate with NLD cohorts and the international community through her husband and two sons living in the U.K.

After fulfilling her sentence, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in July 1995. Although free to leave the confines of her home, she was banned from leaving Burma. Suu Kyi spent five years working to promote democracy until she was again arrested in 2000. The Burmese government put Suu Kyi under house arrest for a second time for attempting to break the travel restrictions imposed on her. Again, she used her house arrest as a thoughtful and productive time. According to Suu Kyi, “I had ample time in which to ruminate over the meaning of words and precepts that I had known and accepted all my life. As a Buddhist, I had heard about dukha [suffering]. … However, it was only during my years of house arrest that I got around to investigating the nature of the six great dukha.” Her thoughts led her to conclude, “If suffering were an unavoidable part of our existence, we should try to alleviate it as far as possible in practical, earthly ways.” In her isolation she mulled over the practical ways suffering could be alleviated in Burma such as comprehensive health services, childcare programs, and services for victims of human trafficking.[4]

Following her release from house arrest on May 6, 2002, Suu Kyi immediately began a determined national campaign for the NLD, which was shortened after she was sentenced to house arrest yet again on May 30, 2003. During her third incarceration, she continued to garner domestic and international support from the United States and the European Union, who aggressively pressed the Burmese government for her release. International pressure heightened in the months leading up to the 2010 general elections, calling for the Burmese government to allow Suu Kyi to participate as a candidate. The Burmese government, responsive to international sanctions and rhetorical support for Suu Kyi and democracy, released Suu Kyi from house arrest, albeit a week after November 2010 elections. Suu Kyi was released from seven and a half years of house arrest to crowds of jubilant supporters. After her release, Suu Kyi began urging pro-democracy movements to form coalitions: “I don’t think that things just happen. We have to make it happen. We want to use this. We want to use this as an opportunity for greater unity and greater understanding between the various groups that all want a democracy.” [5]

Leadership

Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership cannot be attributed solely to her status as the daughter of a political hero. She is deeply influenced by nonviolent civic leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. As a political leader, she has managed to find an elegant, sustained balance between defiance and nonviolence. Despite a government ban on political gatherings of more than four people, Suu Kyi embarked on a public speaking tour around the country in order to garner support for the NLD; it was not the first time she had defied government orders, nor would it be the last.

Once, while walking back from a speech she had given at a small town rally, Suu Kyi and her supporters were suddenly surrounded by soldiers who commanded them to get out of the road. Suu Kyi calmly responded that they would walk down the side of the road instead. Suu Kyi explains, “My thought was, one doesn’t turn back in a situation like this.” Having walked straight up to the soldiers, she stood waiting for them to allow her to pass until a Major suddenly appeared and ordered them to lower their guns.[6] “There is a vast difference in the attitude of a man with a gun in his hand and that of one without a gun in his hand,” avows Suu Kyi. “When someone doesn’t have a gun in his hand, he or she tries harder to use his or her mind, sense of compassion and intelligence to work out a solution.” [7]

For her efforts to bring democracy to Burma, Suu Kyi has received a number of the world’s highest accolades, including the Sakharov Prize, the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Gold Medal. Suu Kyi, using the $1.3 million award from her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, chose to invest in the Burmese people and established The Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Trust for Health and Education. Suu Kyi has donated the funds from all of the awards that she has received to this national trust. While Suu Kyi’s work has been supported internationally, inside Burma the government has not only repeatedly put her under house arrest but it has also outlawed mention of her in the press and banned her photo from public display.

Civic Environment

The government of Burma has long been widely regarded as one of the most repressive in the world. The Burmese regime is far from an electoral democracy; for half a century the military junta single handedly controlled all executive, legislative, and judicial powers and committed flagrant human rights violations. Lacking transparency and accountability mechanisms, government corruption has been rampant at both the national and local levels. The military government has ruthlessly prevented the free flow of information from the outside world by restricting press freedom, stepping up surveillance at Internet cafes and sharply raising the fees for satellite dish licenses. Freedoms of association and assembly have been severely restricted; unauthorized outdoor gatherings of more than five people banned, and authorities have regularly used force to break up or prevent demonstrations and meetings. [8]

Despite its long history of tyrannical rule, the Burmese government has made recent overtures toward democratic political life and freedoms. The first parliamentary elections since 1990 were held in November 2010 though international observers ruled that the elections were flawed. Only a few months later, parliamentarians elected U Thein Sein, a former military general, to presidency. Since Thein Sein’s election, the government has released more than 100 political prisoners. An estimated 2,000 political prisoners remain in Burma’s prisons, however.[9] According to Freedom House’s 2012 Freedom in the World report, Burma still lacks governmental transparency, a democratic electoral process, and basic rights such as freedom of association and assembly and workers’ rights.

Yet, in a move unimaginable in previous years, Thein Sein broke from convention and invited Aung Sang Suu Kyi to engage in dialogue in 2011. The government made further gestures toward respecting human rights in 2011 by easing some restrictions on the press, including permitting mention of Suu Kyi. However, journalists remain in prison and a censorship board continues to ban politically sensitive stories. [10] The international community remains critical of the Burmese government, especially regarding the repression of ethnic minorities. [11]

Message and Audience

In stark contrast to the violent tactics of the military government, Suu Kyi’s core message is a call to nonviolent action in the pursuit of democracy. The influence of Buddhism in Aung San Suu Kyi’s politics has been a topic of scholarly analysis for years, and she believes the idea of mutual forgiveness in Buddhism is central to the function of democratic transition. [12] In an interview, Suu Kyi explained that she and Gandhi share a belief in the “inevitable sameness about the challenges of authoritarian rule” that gives rise to similar nonviolent tactics used by opposition groups across contexts.[13] Between her Buddhist beliefs and her familial link to Burma's revolutionary history, Suu Kyi is has been an easily accessible leader for the Burmese people.

Though house arrest made it impossible to publicly march with her compatriots, Suu Kyi’s integrity and dignified resistance could not be squelched by any physical restrictions. In her famous “Freedom from Fear” speech following the 1990 elections, Suu Kyi told supporters, “It is not power that corrupts, but fear.”[14] Throughout, she has persevered in her work; “Saints, it has been said, are the sinners that go on trying.”[15] Through a series of large, open rallies and carefully worded letters to the members of the junta from both Suu Kyi personally and the leaders of the NLD during her imprisonment, she managed to galvanize the population towards the pursuit of democracy. The military junta had ample capacity to crush any form of resistance by force, and Suu Kyi recognized this. She crafted her message so that the Burmese population could take effective action against the government without risking a violent confrontation with the junta’s military forces.

She has pledged her allegiance to the Burmese people and a democratic Burma. “My party, the National League for Democracy, and I stand ready and willing to play any role in the process of national reconciliation… The potential of our country is enormous. This should be nurtured and developed to create not just a more prosperous but also a more harmonious, democratic society where our people can live in peace, security and freedom.”[16]

Outreach Activities

Nearly two full decades spent under house arrest have not deterred Suu Kyi from her path towards a democratic Burma. Following her release in 2010, she has continued her civic activism, including championing for the NLD to participate in 2012 general elections. In a move welcomed by international observers as a liberalizing step, the NLD was allowed to participate in the April 2012 parliamentary elections. The party won 43 out of 44 seats in parliament, including one for Suu Kyi. Popular support for democratic principles has remained strong, with the NLD participating again in the 2015 general elections and winning a large portion of parliamentary seats. Given the nascency of Burma's democratic shift, the NLD's sustained influence in the 2015 elections marks a historic victory in Suu Kyi's movement for further democratic reforms. Despite this political triumph, Suu Kyi has demonstrated cautious optimism. “So many hills remain to be climbed, chasms to be bridged, obstacles to be reached.”[17] 

Suu Kyi believes that one of the key groups who will facilitate the transition to democracy are the youth, particularly young members of the Burmese military. She argues that the rise in technology and globalization will lead to their allegiances shifting: “The age is on our side in that sense because it is the age of technology. [The government] cannot keep even these young people…cut off completely from the rest of the world. And I think they are going to have many opportunities now that we never had in the past simply because of the technological revolution.” [18]

Since the late 1980s, Burmese activists and their allies have created a vast network of supporters; indeed, without a diverse umbrella of domestic and international support, the Burmese Democratic Movement would not have stood tall in the face of oppression. In May 2012, Suu Kyi traveled outside of Burma for the first time in over 20 years to meet with international supporters. She was welcomed by the government of Thailand, the British parliament and the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden, where she was finally able to accept her Nobel Peace Prize, originally awarded in 1991. Conscious of the important role that the international community could play in a democratic transition, she has called on that community for continued sanctions on the Burmese regime and support for human development.[19]

Suu Kyi’s continued commitment to nonviolence, combined with the esteem and faith of the Burmese people, has earned the Burmese Democratic Movement solidarity and respect throughout the free world.[20] Nonetheless, Suu Kyi remains vigilant: “If I advocate cautious optimism it is not because I do not have faith in the future but because I do not want to encourage blind faith. Without faith in the future, without the conviction that democratic values and fundamental human rights are not only necessary but possible for our society, our movement could not have been sustained throughout the destroying years. Some of our warriors fell at their post, some deserted us, but a dedicated core remained strong and committed. At times when I think of the years that have passed, I am amazed that so many remained staunch under the most trying circumstances. Their faith in our cause is not blind; it is based on a clear-eyed assessment of their own powers of endurance and a profound respect for the aspirations of our people.”[21]

Learn More

Exclusive Tavaana Resources

In Pursuit of Truth: Undercover Journalism and The Democratic Voice of Burma

News & Analysis

“Burma: Freedom in the World 2012” Freedom House. January 2012.

Fuller, Thomas “As Myanmar Changes, So Does its Leader.” New York Times. 3 April 2011.

Haack, Michael and Gina Nespoli. “Building Solidarity with Burma's Nonviolent Resistance.” War Resister’s League. Fall 2008. Accessed 24 May 2010.

"Home Page." Burmese Democratic Movement Association.

"Home Page." US Campaign for Burma.

Lucas, Scott. “Burma Interview: Aung San Suu Kyi on Opposition, Talking with the Regime, and Joining Facebook.” Enduring America. 18 Nov, 2010.

Moe, Wai. "Burma's Democracy Movement Turns 20." The Irrawaddy, 13 March 2008.

Mydans, Seth. “Myanmar Dissident Calls for Change.” New York Times. 14 Nov, 2010.

 Mydans, Seth. “Difficult Issues Clamor for Advocate’s Attention.” New York Times. 16 Nov, 2010.

 "Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi." BBC News. 29 May 2012.

Suu Kyi, Aung San. “Nobel Lecture by Aung San Suu Kyi” 16 June 2012.

Suu Kyi, Aung San. "Please Use Your Liberty to Promote Ours." The New York Times, 4 Feb. 1997.

Zawta, U Pyinya. "A leading saffron monk's memoir." Mizzima News, 2 Jan. 2009.

Books

Rotberg, Robert I. Burma: Prospects for a Democratic Future. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998.

Stewart Lerner, Whitney. Aung San Suu Kyi: Fearless Voice of Burma. Minneapolis: Publications Company, 1997.

Ling, Bettina. Aung San Suu Kyi: Standing Up for Democracy in Burma. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1999.

Houtman, Gustaaf. Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. Tokyo: Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 1999.

Suu Kyi, Aung San. Freedom From Fear and Other Writings. Penguin Press, 2009.

Wintle, Justin. Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2008.

Footnotes
[1] "Burma's 1988 protests." BBC News. 25 Sept. 2007.
[2] Erlanger, Steven. " Opposition Leader Is Confined by Burmese Rulers." The New York Times 21 July 1989. Accessed 18 May 2010.
[3] “Home Page.” Burmese Democratic Movement Association, UK. 20 May 2010.
[4] Suu Kyi, Aung San. “Nobel Lecture by Aung San Suu Kyi” 16 June 2012.
[5] Finch, Steve. “Aung San Suu Kyi Opens Up.” The Phnom Phen Post.18 November 2010.
[6] Ling, Bettina. Aung San Suu Kyi: Standing Up for Democracy in Burma. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1999. Pg. 14.
[7] "Aung San Suu Kyi on Non-Violence.” Youtube. 20 May 2010.
[8] “Burma (Myanmar) (2009).” Freedom in the World Report. Freedom House. Accessed 21 May 2010.
[9] “World Report 2012: Burma.” Human Rights Watch. Accessed 30 August 2012.
[10] “World Report 2012: Burma.”
[11] Popham, Peter. "The backlash Against Aung San Suu Kyi" The Daily Beast 24 August 2012.
[12] Houtman, Gustaaf. Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. Tokyo: Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 1999. Pg. 216.
[13] Houtman, 297.
[14] Suu Kyi, Aung San. Freedom from Fear and Other Writings. Penguin Press, 2009. Pg. 160.
[15] Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear. 183.
[16] Suu Kyi “Nobel Lecture…”
[17] Stringer, David. “Suu Kyi: Myanmar headed for better future.” The Guardian. 21 June 2012.
[18] Mydans, Seth. “Myanmar Dissident Calls for Change.” The New York Times. 14 Nov. 2010.
[19] “The Andrew Marr Show Interview with Aung Sang Suu Kyi.” The Andrew Marr Show, BBC. 12 June 2012.
[20] Lucas, Scott. “Burma Interview: Aung San Suu Kyi on Opposition, Talking with the Regime, and Joining Facebook.” Enduring America. 18 Nov, 2010.
[21] Suu Kyi “Nobel Lecture…”

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