The incredible battle of Aung San Suu Kyi – transforming Myanmar from Military junta to a democracy

Sam Wyatt is a second-year student at King’s College London reading BA International Relations. He is also the East Asia and Pacific Editor International Relations Today.

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.

The news this week that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy have won majorities in both the upper and the lower house can be seen as a fantastic leap forward in Myanmar’s liberalization process (that started after the opposition boycotted the 2010 election). It can also be seen, and indeed must be seen, as the ultimate reward for Aung San Suu Kyi (henceforth Daw Suu), who since 1988 when her mother died has given her life towards the quest for democracy. The following article will explain the political ups and downs of this incredible woman, showing the personal toll she has had to bear because of the love of her country.

Born in 1945, Daw Suu was struck with tragedy from an early age when in 1947 her father Aung San, who had negotiated Burmese independence from the British and founded the Burmese army was assassinated by political rivals. Indeed this tragedy played a big part in Daw Suu’s quest for a free and fair Burma, longing for a world where political rivals could co-exist.

Between 1960 and 1988 Daw Suu actually spent very little time in Burma, instead residing in India, the USA and the UK where she worked for the UN and the India institutes once she’d completed her degree from Oxford University. However, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and more specifically by Buddhist concepts, Aung San Suu Kyi entered politics in Burma to work for democratization, and helped found the National League for Democracy on 27 September 1988, quickly gaining attention from major officials who put her under house arrest on 20th July 1989. Offered freedom if she left the country, she refused showing the extent to which she cared about democracy. All the fervor Daw Suu created led to one of the most scandalous elections of all time. Having not held an election in over 30 years, the military junta decided to call an election, believing that a decisive victory would nip this hunt for democracy in the bud. However, the result was not anticipated. In fact, the NLD won a staggering 59% of the votes and 80% of the seats. Obviously the junta did not want to give up power and consequently the results were nullified and Daw Suu was put under house arrest again, where she would remain for 15 of the next 21 years. Indeed this house arrest had a very personal toll, when her husband, Michael Aris, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1997 and she could not visit him in the UK for fear of being excommunicated and banned from coming back to Myanmar.

Daw Suu’s eventual release from House arrest in 2010 came 6 days after a widely criticized election, which the opposition boycotted as they saw it as an unfair election. However, when by-elections were held in April 2012, to fill seats vacated by politicians who had taken government posts, she and her party contested seats, despite reservations. “Some are a little bit too optimistic about the situation,” she said in an interview before the vote. “We are cautiously optimistic. We are at the beginning of a road.”

She and the NLD won 43 of the 45 seats contested, in an emphatic statement of support. Weeks later, Ms Suu Kyi took the oath in parliament and became the leader of the opposition. And the following May, she embarked on a visit outside Myanmar for the first time in 24 years, in a sign of apparent confidence that its new leaders would allow her to return.

All this has led up to the historic moment this week where the military rule have accepted the results saying they have lost by a significant margin. We do not know what the future holds for Daw Suu, especially as a constitutional clause means she cannot become president (her sons hold British passports giving her ‘allegiance to a foreign power’) but we do know that she has played a big role in creating a more open and democratic Myanmar.

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