Suu Kyi’s 20-year war of wills with Myanmar junta: Profile

Saturday, November 13, 2010

BANGKOK - Aung San Suu Kyi’s patience and fierce determination have been tested repeatedly during a 20-year war of wills against Myanmar’s military rulers.

Those qualities, honed by a daily morning regimen of Buddhist meditation, have helped her in a battle in which she has effectively spent 15 of the last 20 years under house arrest.

Born June 19, 1945, Suu Kyi (pronounced Sue Chee) was only two when her father, Burmese independence hero General Aung San, was murdered by political rivals.

Her mother, Khin Kyi, served in several posts in the newly independent country, including ambassador to India. Suu Kyi grew up abroad, attending Britain’s Oxford University where she received degrees in philosophy and economics in 1967.

In 1972 she married Michael Aris, a British scholar of Asian literature and history, and had two sons, Alexander and Kim. She also lived in the US, working for the UN and as a volunteer social worker at a New York hospital.

But she never lost her interest in her homeland, where General Ne Win, a colleague of her father’s, had staged a military coup in 1962, nipping the country’s fragile young democracy in the bud and setting it on his disastrous “Burmese road to socialism.”

Ne Win was still in power in 1988 when Suu Kyi travelled to Rangoon, where her mother had returned and suffered a stroke.

It was then that years of pent-up frustration and resentment against the military boiled over into huge street demonstrations against the Ne Win regime.

The dictator responded with force, ordering the army to fire on thousands of unarmed students, Buddhist monks and other civilians.

Thousands were killed, wounded and imprisoned, but the crackdown failed to kill the spirit of rebellion, which grew quickly after Suu Kyi decided to join the pro-democracy forces.

Addressing a huge crowd in Rangoon, standing in front of a giant portrait of General Aung San, Suu Kyi declared, “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on.”

With her illustrious family name, combined with a natural gift for inspirational rhetoric in both Burmese and English, Suu Kyi quickly became the guiding light of the country’s most potent opposition force, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

The upheaval forced Ne Win to step down, but he was quickly replaced by a military junta calling itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

They changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar and the capital from Rangoon to Yangon, pledged free market economic reforms and agreed to hold a “free and fair” National Assembly election.

The junta also put Suu Kyi under house arrest, but this failed to dampen public enthusiasm for the NLD, which won more than 80 percent of the legislative seats in the 1990 election.

But the junta ignored the results and jailed or exiled most of the winning candidates.

The generals kept Suu Kyi locked away in her family home in Yangon and refused to let her husband and sons visit her. They tried to coax her into leaving the country to visit her family in England but she refused, knowing the generals would never let her return.

In 1991 her only link to the outside world was her short-wave radio, which is how she learned she won that year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The prize boosted her prestige and increased international calls for her release, but it did not stop the junta’s attempts to break her spirit, including food deprivation.

The international pressure finally paid off with her release from house arrest in 1995.

In interviews with Western correspondents she attributed her ability to withstand the junta’s psychological warfare against her to her daily, hour-long meditation sessions.

She said she relied on her Buddhist faith for support, refusing to succumb to the effects of prolonged isolation, fear and hatred, even against her enemies.

The junta, which again changed its name, to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), refused repeated calls to allow Suu Kyi’s ailing husband to visit her. He died in 1999.

The following year Suu Kyi was again placed under house arrest, then released 19 months later in May 2002, when the junta again pledged it was turning over a new leaf and would allow her to travel anywhere in the country.

A year later she tested that pledge, travelling to the northern city of Mandalay and surrounding towns to drum up support for the resurgent NLD.

The planned one-month campaign trip was cut short on the night of May 30 when Suu Kyi’s motorcade was attacked by a military-backed mob armed with wooden clubs and bamboo spears. By official accounts, four people were killed, but dissident sources put the figure at over 70.

She was put under “protection” after the incident, and then again under house arrest in September 2003, a status which effectively remained in force until her release Saturday.

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