Just when it seems as though the entire world is going to hell in a hand-basket we get a bit of good news. Certainly, the recent Arab Spring which deposed several entrenched despots is worth celebrating, and the French people sure seem happy with Francois Hollande – their first Socialist president in nearly 2 decades.
But one of the brightest sources of hope on the global horizon is the recent startling democratization of Burma - led by a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has been so brave in standing up to the ferocious Rangoon goons that she’s portrayed by a former bad-ass Bond girl in a new biopic.
Beloved by her people, Aung San Suu Kyi is affectionately called “The Lady” and “Daw Suu.” But for Westerners who have trouble saying her name (pronounced “Awn Sahn Sue Chee”) the pro-democracy leader suggests to just call her “Suu.”
On April 1, 2012, after decades of struggle, Suu and her National League for Democracy won 43 parliamentary seats in Burma (aka “Myanmar”) – the Southeast Asian country known for its teak, jade, gold-encrusted Buddhist pagodas, and oh yes – its brutal police state.
Although the NLD remains outnumbered in a parliament where 25% of the seats are reserved for the military and the pro-army ruling party, this is still a tremendous victory for democracy, and for The Lady who has led such an extraordinarily tumultuous life…
Her father, General Aung San, was a founder of the Communist Party of Burma and Commander of the Burma Independence Army, which resisted the Japanese and British colonizers. On July 19, 1947 the man considered the father of modern-day Burma was assassinated, when his daughter was only two years old. Burma attained independence on January 4, 1948.
Suu’s mother, Khin Kyi, who’d been a Rangoon General Hospital senior nurse, headed social planning and social policy bodies in the new Burma and in 1960 became its ambassador to India, where Suu lived for four years. But in 1962 General Ne Win staged a coup d’etat and ruled Burma with a military iron fist as a one-party state until 1988.
Meanwhile, from 1964 – 1967 Suu attended Oxford, earning a B.A. in philosophy, politics and economics. Suu moved to New York for graduate studies and worked at the U.N. In 1972 she married Michael Aris, an academic specializing in Tibet, whom she’d met at Britain. She lived overseas, wrote, studied and started a family.
In 1988 Suu returned home to care for her ailing mother and was swept up into a seething monsoon of political turmoil, as Ne Win resigned and mass uprisings broke out. The daughter of the independence leader joined the fray, writing open letters, making speeches and touring the nation, and calling for a return to democracy.
On September 18 1988 the Burmese military established the State Law and Order Restoration Council, with the Orwellian acronym of SLORC. A week after that the National League for Democracy was formed, with Suu as the party’s General-Secretary.
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. — Aung San Suu Kyi
SUU – POLITICAL PRISONER
In February 1989 SLORC banned Suu from running in the promised elections. In April, unarmed, she boldly walked toward soldiers aiming rifles at her in the Irawaddy Delta. Without any charge or trial Suu was put under house arrest on July 20, and she began a hunger strike. Although Suu was detained and out of the running, on May 27, 1990 the NLD scored a major electoral upset, winning 82% of parliamentary seats.
SLORC refused to recognize the election’s results, and refused to cede power.
SUU – NOBEL PEACE PRIZE
In 1991 Suu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As she was still under house arrest at Rangoon (aka “Yangon”), her children accepted the award in Oslo, Norway on her behalf. Suu went on to use the $1.3 million in prize money to create a Burmese health and education trust.
During her confinement the political prisoner was forbidden from seeing her sons; her husband died of cancer in 1999. Suu had declined a government offer to allow her to visit her stricken husband in the U.K., afraid she would be barred from returning to Burma.
MORE IMPRISONMENT, MORE UNREST
On July 10, 1995, the prisoner of conscience was released from house arrest, although Suu’s activities, such as public speaking, were restricted. Suu was placed under house arrest again in September 2000 after she tried defying a travel ban to Mandalay. Although unconditionally released from house arrest in May 2002, Suu was imprisoned after a fight between her followers and a pro-regime mob in 2003. Eventually she returned to house arrest, where, for the most part, she remained until late 2010.
In 2007, inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi hundreds of thousands of Burmese people flooded the streets in peaceful demonstrations against their economic desperation and corrupt leadership. This “Saffron Revolution,” led by Buddhist monks wearing saffron-colored robes was met with a brutal suppression. The 2008 Oscar-nominated Danish documentary Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country chillingly captured the military’s violent crackdown through hidden DV cameras and footage smuggled out of Burma:
And now, there is change…
Aung San Suu Kyi was sworn into office on May 2, 2012. On May 8 she was issued her first passport in 24 years and now has plans to travel to Britain and Norway, where she will finally be able to accept her Nobel Peace Prize in person.
In December 2011 Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. Secretary of State in more than half a century to visit Burma, where she met with her fellow female leader at Suu’s home. Since then Suu has already met with foreign ministers of Japan, Thailand, and Britain.
As the Western world gets wise to her story, it seems now as though Suu is attaining a popularity formerly reserved for saints and rock stars. Or, kick-ass martial-arts actresses:
A new biopic about the turbulent life of Aung San Suu Kyi called The Lady has just been released - directed by Luc Besson and starring former Miss Malaysia Bond-Girl Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Memoirs of a Geisha). The film tells Suu’s heroic story and of her rise to power, proving that wielding democracy is as cool as punching and shooting people.
In Johnny Cash’s humorous ballad A Boy Named Sue an absentee father gives his son an effeminate name in order to toughen him so he can withstand the slings and arrows of growing up in a harsh world without a dad. Similarly, a girl named Suu has received a name that’s hard to live up to by a father who likewise left her all too early.
Resistance leader Suu has risen to the occasion – taken on the mantle that history has thrust upon her, admirably leading her people and the cause of democracy. Through Gandhi-like nonviolent civil disobedience, this sarong-wearing, Buddhism-inspired unarmed feminine figure has fearlessly stood up to the iron heel of the state and become an icon and beacon of freedom around the world.
Her fight and Burma/Myanmar’s fight is far from over. Though the European Union recently suspended sanctions against Myanmar, Washington has chosen a “wait and see” approach towards Myanmar’s military regime. Aung San Suu Kyi understands that this huge victory is still early in the process:
“We are cautiously optimistic. We are at the beginning of a road. Many people are beginning to say that the democratization process here is irreversible. It’s not so.”
After all of the wild twists and turns on democracy’s long and winding road that this 66-year-old has been on since childhood, it is easy to understand her tempered optimism.
As the revolutionary British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his 1819 poem Ode to the West Wind:
“Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
For more informationon the progressive movement in Burma/Myanmar and even how you can participate, go to either of these two links:
Oh and finally – What Should We Call It Now? Burma? Myanmar? Well, as about.com suggests, it’s not that easy:
Question: Is it Burma or Myanmar?
Answer: Depends on whom you ask. Everyone can agree that it was Burma up until 1989, when the military junta enacted the “Adaptation of Expression Law.” This decreed English transliteration changes of geographic locations, including Burma becoming Myanmar and the capital Rangoon becoming Yangon.
However, because not all nations recognize the country’s current military leadership, not all recognize the name change. The United Nations uses Myanmar, defaulting to the nomenclature wishes of the country’s rulers, but the United States and the United Kingdom do not recognize the junta and thus still call the country Burma.
So use of Burma can indicate non-recognition for the military junta, use of Myanmar can indicate a distaste for the colonial powers past who called the country Burma, and interchangeable use of both can indicate no particular preference. Media organizations will often use Burma because their readers or viewers better recognize that and cities such as Rangoon, but not as easily recognize the junta’s nomenclature.