June 20/05, Rediff.com, Claude Arpi, "Myanmar's Iron Lady":
This is no spaghetti western. This is a real story from Danubyu, Myanmar.
April 5, 1989, two months before the Tiananmen Square massacre in nearby
A woman walks down the middle of the street, accompanied by several men.
Six soldiers of the State Law and Order Restoration Council -- the junta
which had crushed the democracy movement and killed thousands of people in
Rangoon a few months earlier -- order the group to stop.
The group pays no heed. A young army captain whips out his revolver and
jumps out of his jeep, ready to open fire.
The woman asks the men to move aside: 'It seemed so much simpler to
provide them with a single target than to bring everyone else in.' In the
nick of time, a major intervenes, and asks the captain to hold his fire. The
lady walks on.
She is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Iron Lady of Burma.
The fearless daughter of General Aung San, the hero of Burma's freedom
struggle, turned 60 June 19, thereby completing a full cycle according to
the Buddhists who follow the 5 elements and 12 animals calendar.
For the past 16 years, Suu Kyi has only seen the inside of the jails,
been under house arrest or forbidden to freely travel in her own country.
But she has always remained faithful to her principles: a non-violent
championship of democracy.
At a time when role models are a rarity, Suu Kyi is one of the very few
persons on this planet whose life can be an inspiration; she is the
embodiment of a rare value in this often immoral world: the freedom of the
UN asks Myanmar to release Suu Kyi
Is it a coincidence that another Nobel Laureate, who like her has become
a role model for the youth, has also written about 'freedom'?
"Freedom In Exile" is what the autobiography of Tenzin Gyaltso, the Dalai
Lama of Tibet, is titled. Suu Kyi collected writings are: "Freedom
There are many similarities between the Tibetan leader and Burmese
freedom fighter: it is probably why he likes to refer to her as 'my little
For decades, the countrymen of both these exceptional beings have not
known the taste of 'outer freedom'.
Next month, the Dalai Lama will "celebrate" his 70th birthday with 46
years of just 'inner freedom.' The 'little sister' completes 16 years of a
Another thing Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama share is their long association
with India, an India which has rarely shown any sympathy for their political
cause despite the great principles that its leaders swear on.
Why Burma Matters?
Aung San Suu Kyi was born April 19, 1945 in Rangoon to General Aung San
and Daw Khin. The general was one of the 'Thirty Comrades' who spearheaded
the Japanese advance into British Burma, before turning against the Japanese
and finally negotiating Burma's independence with the British.
Just as he was taking over as the first head of the Burmese State,
General Aung San was assassinated. It was the first national tragedy.
The same day in [a] statement to the press, India Prime Minister
Jawaharlal Nehru declared: 'I mourn Aung San, friend and comrade, who even
in his youth had become the architect of Burmese freedom. I mourn Burma
bereft at this critical moment of her chosen leaders and I mourn for Asia
who has lost one of her bravest and most far-seeing sons.'
Suu Kyi was only two years old, but this event marked her deeply for the
rest of her life. It is as if she had a debt towards her nation and an
obligation towards her father.
In 1960, her mother Daw Khin Kyi was appointed Burma's ambassador to
India. Suu Kyi, a young girl of fifteen with long thick plaits, joined Lady
Sri Ram College in Delhi.
'Her circle of Indian friends widened. This was a wonderful opportunity
to explore and understand the country of Mahatma Gandhi,' recalls a family
friend and diplomat, Ma Than E.
Apart from college, Suu kept busy with Japanese flower arrangements,
piano classes or riding lessons. She also got to know Indira Gandhi's
children, Rajiv and Sanjay.
Do we have a Burma policy??
But her favorite pastime was reading books, in English and Burmese. Ma
Than E says: 'India for Suu was a throbbing, vital experience. Her bonds of
remembrance and love for this country have remained strong to this day [this
was written in 1991].'
With her mother leading the hectic social life of a diplomat, Suu got to
know many senior Indian politicians, officials and diplomats in the capital:
'She took a great interest in their appearance, behaviour, talk and
In 1964, Suu went to Oxford where she studied for three years to earn a
BA in philosophy, politics and economics. Later she got her first work
experience as an assistant secretary in the United Nations Secretariat.
Her life took another turn when she met a young and brilliant British
scholar, Dr Michael Aris, whose expertise was the Tibetan Buddhist
Before her marriage Suu Kyi asked her future husband for a 'favour': 'I
only ask one thing, that, should my people need me, you would help me to do
my duty by them.'
Her life as a mother of two sons and a scholar continued smoothly during
the following years. She was separated for some time from her family when in
1985, she decided to learn Japanese and work as a visiting scholar at the
Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto University.
In 1987, the family was reunited and she was back in India. For two
years, Dr Aris conducted a research on 'A Study of Buddhist Hagiography' at
the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Simla.
The main theme of his study was the life and times of the Sixth Dalai
Lama, born during the 17th century in Tawang district of Arunachal.
Suu had herself received a scholarship to work on 'The Growth and
Development of Burmese and Indian Intellectual Traditions under
It was an excellent occasion for her to master the political and
spiritual thoughts of Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Tagore, Gandhi or
In her thesis, she admired these men who 'were able to use the English
language to make their views known to the world. Because they could handle
the western intellectual idiom so masterfully, the world regarded those
views as worthy of serious consideration.' After traveling extensively
through the Himalayas and writing on India's age-old traditions of peace and
tolerance, the couple returned to London in early 1988.
'Would you mind very much should such a situation ever arise? How
probable it is I do not know, but the possibility is there?' Suu had once
written to Michael.
Fate caught up with her in March 1988. Her mother had a stroke in Burma
and Suu had to immediately leave England for her country. A few months after
her arrival in Rangoon, the old military dictator General Ne Win resigned,
triggering a dynamic pro-democracy student movement.
Soon millions of Burmese joined in their demand for a true democracy.
This culminated on August 8, when thousands of demonstrators were
massacred by the army, perhaps a prequel to the Tiananmen Square incident
which happened less than a year later.
The time of reckoning had come for Suu Kyi.
'Her knowledge of the Burmese heritage, her wonderful fluency in her own
language, and very important, her refusal to give up her own Burmese
citizenship and passport? all these factors conspired with the sad
circumstances of her mother's final illness to make her engagement
unavoidable,' her husband later wrote.
On August 26, 1988, she addressed one million people assembled at the
Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.
'I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was
going on. This national crisis could, in fact, be called the second struggle
for national independence.'
She thus became the leader of the opposition National League for
Democracy?which till today opposes the military junta. The following months
saw her criss-crossing Burma and addressing hundreds of meetings; the
incident reported at the beginning occurred at this time.
The junta was becoming more and more nervous and finally on July 20,
1989, she was arrested. On the eve, she had cancelled a mammoth rally on the
occasion of the Martyr's Day (which marks General Aung San's assassination),
as the army had threatened to shoot at the crowd.
From that day onwards she has spent most of her time in jail or in
confinement ('protective custody' as the junta nicely calls it). In May
1990, despite her continued detention, her party won a landslide victory in
the general election; the NLD secured 82 percent of the seats. But till
today the generals have refused to validate the results of the election.
In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but her fortune did not
During the following years, despite appeals from the US president, the UN
secretary general, the Dalai Lama, other Nobel Laureates and thousands of
other personalities from the West and Asia, nothing has moved the junta.
The most tragic event is perhaps the death of her husband in March 1999.
Though she had not seen him since 1995 and he was dying from prostate
cancer, he was refused a visa and not allowed to visit her a last time.
Suu Kyi could have left Myanmar to see him, but it was clear that the
junta would not have allowed her to return.
Forced to choose between her husband and her country, she opted for the
Suu Kyi not to attend husband's funeral?
What has given the junta the strength to resist world pressure and keep
Aung San Suu Kyi behind the bars of her home for 16 years? Look
to the North; it is the same regime which forced the Dalai Lama to flee his
country in 1959. In China, the Communist/capitalist regime (which smashed
its own children in 1989 in Tiananmen) is terrified of the word Suu Kyi
lives by: Freedom.
There is no doubt that without Beijing's active support (and with India's
failure to take a stand in accordance with her professed principles), Burma
would today be a democracy.
'Always one to practice what he preached, Aung San himself constantly
demonstrated courage -- not just the physical sort by the kind that enabled
him to speak the truth, to stand by his word, to accept criticism, to admit
his faults, to correct his mistakes, to respect the opposition, to parley
with the enemy,' says Suu Kyi about her father.
She has practiced all these values and above all that of Abhaya,
'fearlessness', that 'gift of Ancient India' which is 'not merely bodily
courage but an absence of fear from the mind.'
Whether or not she lives to see her dream materialise, Suu Kyu will live
on forever in the minds of those who champion freedom of the spirit.