I recently watch a movie named 'The Lady', and was extremely fascinated by the
true story of one of the most determined and well loved political leaders in history.
Michelle Yeoh played the legendary Aung San Suu Kyi,
the Burmese stateswoman and president of the
National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma.
''The Lady'' begins with the death of Suu Kyi's father Aung San, who founded the modern Burmese army and negotiated the independence of Burma from the British in 1947. He was assassinated by his nationalist rivals U Saw that same year, making him a martyr for the pro-democratic movement. Suu Kyi was two years old.
Burma's independence began with U Nu as Prime Minister of a one-party, military-led state, who ruled with repression and violence for many years. This conflict has still not been resolved today.
Fast forward to 1990, and Suu Kyi won 59% of the national votes, and the NLD party won 81% of the seats in Parliament. This victory was completely ignored by the military government. Suu Kyi had already been detained under house arrest before the elections and so remained there for 15 of 21 years from 1989 to her release on 13 November 2010. Today, she is one of the world's most prominent political prisoners.
Love and life
In 1972 Aung San Suu Kyi married British born Dr. Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibetan culture, whom she met in New York while working for the United Nations. They had two sons: Alexander and Kim. The movie shows them living in England at the time that Suu Kyi returned to Burma to see her sick mother, and ultimately to lead the pro-democracy movement.
The most heart-wrenching moment of ''The Lady'' is when you realise that the loving married couple will not spend their lives together. Suu Kyi could not leave Burma: if she left she would not be allowed back in. Aris visited several times, but Christmas 1995 was the last time he and his sons were permitted visas. They were constantly denied entry by the Burmese dictatorship, to put pressure on and to isolate Suu Kyi.
Even when Aris was dying of cancer, despite appeals from prominent figures including Pope John Paul II, the Burmese government would still not grant Aris a visa. They said Suu Kyi could leave to see him, but she did not trust that they would let her back in the country. Aris died in 1999 on his 53rd birthday.
She was also separated from her children from 1995 until 2011, when they started to visit her.
Her loyalty earned her the deep respect of the Burmese people. She said:
"As a mother, the greater sacrifice was giving up my sons, but I was always aware of the fact that others had given up more than me. I never forget that my colleagues who are in prison suffer not only physically, but mentally for their families who have no security outside- in the larger prison of Burma under authoritarian rule."
Suu Kyi is influenced by Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent politics, and by Buddhism: she is a Theravada Buddhist. In 1988, when Suu Kyi had just arrived back in the country, General Ne Win resigned and economic issues caused mass protests throughout Burma. The military cracked down and killed thousands of protesters.
Suu Kyi stepped up and addressed half a million people at a mass rally at the Shedagon Pagoda in Burma's capital, and called on the people to peacefully support a movement for democracy. She helped to establish the NLD political party to fulfill this democratic need.
A month later a new military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), seized power, and noticed the growing support of the NLD and Suu Kyi. The following year she was placed under house arrest because she was someone "likely to undermine the community peace and stability" of the country.
Suu Kyi's aim was to create a free Burma, and she knew the best way to achieve this was to win at the elections in 1990. The NLD was victorious, but the (illegal) military government refused to give up power. Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, and her colleagues in prison.
Suu Kyi was released in 1995, but not allowed to leave Burma (even when her husband was dying). Her political work continued until she was arrested in 2000. Again under house arrest, she had plenty of time to mull over the issues facing Burma, and decide how best to alleviate them.
The UN attempted to hold negotiations between Suu Kyi and the junta, and in 2002 she was released for a while, but the next year she and her supporters were attacked. She fled but was found, and again placed under house arrest. She used her influence within Burma, with the UN and the US to full force, and the pressure increased on the Burmese government to release her.
The movie ends in 2007 when she accepts blessings from Buddhist monks outside her residence in Yongon, while still under house arrest. This was part of protests by the monks following steep fuel price increases: they marched for days in support of human rights, in spite of the threat of military crackdown.
Suu Kyi was finally released in 2010, a week after the November elections, amidst a great crowd of supporters cheering her. Straight away she began urging pro-democracy parties to form coalitions, to ''make it happen.''
During her house arrest Suu Kyi devoted herself to Buddhist meditation practices and studying Buddhist thought. Her interest is reflected in her writings of love and compassion. She read philosophy, politics and biographies, and played the piano.
Suu Kyi used her house arrest as a platform for publicising the human rights violations of Burma to the outside world, via her husband and sons.
One of her most famous speeches was Freedom From Fear, which began:
''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.''
In ''The Lady'', one of the most incredible scenes is of Suu Kyi at a small town rally, where her and her supporters were suddenly surrounded by soldiers. The soldiers demand that they leave, but instead Suu Kyi calmly walks towards them, a gun pointed at her head. She explains ''one doesn't turn back in a situation like this.'' Finally a Major appeared and told the soldiers to lower their guns.
Suu Kyi describes the difference between people with guns, and those without:
“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.”
Recognition and Prizes
Suu Kyi received the Rafto Prize and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, which her sons accepted on her behalf. She used the 1.3 billion USD Peace Prize money to establish a health and education trust for the Burmese people.
She won awards from India, Pakistan and the USA, including the highest US civilian honour: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was made an honorary citizen of Canada in 2007. On 16th June 2012 Aung San Suu Kyi finally delivered her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo's City hall, 21 years after being awarded the prize.
In 2012 the NLD was elected to the Pyithu Hluttaw, the lower house of Burmese Parliament, and in 2013 Suu Kyi announced that she wanted to run for presidency in Burma's 2015 elections. However, she was still prohibited from becoming president under the current constitution because she married a foreigner. That didn't stop the NLD from winning a landslide victory, taking 86% of the seats in the Assembly of the Union, which they are expected to take up in early 2016.
Since Burma's independence in 1948
it has not been possible to say that Burma has been a free country.
But Aung San Suu Kyi will not stop facing the challenges ahead,
and will not stop until peace and democracy have been achieved.
The video below shows Suu Kyi's speech at the University of Oxford, where she was a student.