People who know how to sit with both the fire and the peace of God fascinate me. People who walk calmly and with dignity through strife, who dedicate their lives to helping others while harboring no illusions about the forces that rise against them—these people are truly extraordinary. Aung San Suu Kyi is such a person.
She is the daughter of a freedom fighter, a man named Aung San who helped free Burma from British rule in 1948. Aung San would have been the country’s first leader, but was assassinated when his daughter was just two years old. Suu Kyi’s mother served as Burma’s ambassador to India. Yes, here is a woman who was born to symbolize freedom—she must have felt it, known it from an early age. But hers is not a story of quick fire, a revolution born overnight. Suu Kyi is a patient woman, a Buddhist who has learned to quell impatience and anger through meditation. And her methods of resistance to military rule have always been peaceful.
Suu Kyi was educated in Burma, India, and the United Kingdom. While studying at Oxford, she met her future husband, a Tibet scholar named Michael Aris. I love this part of her story, because she is a mother. She spent over twenty years raising two sons in a foreign country, writing scholarly articles. Imagine that—this woman of great destiny, living an ordinary life in a faraway land.
And then, in 1988, her mother suffered a stroke. Suu Kyi returned to Burma, and everything changed.
A junta seized power from a dictator. Students rose in protest, and the military replied with a bloody crackdown, killing up to 5,000 protestors. In response, Aung San Suu Kyi became the General Secretary of the National League for Democracy. She became the leader she was meant to be, referred to as “The Lady” by her people.
For the next twenty years, she was under house arrest off and on while a military dictatorship held her country in its grip. In 1999, her husband died abroad—he was denied a request to see her a last time. In 2003, her son Alexander asked to visit her while she was in jail for a brief period, and she denied herself the opportunity because it would be unfair to others in detention who were separated from their families. That is sacrifice that I cannot imagine—that is what comes from knowing that you must walk the patient line of fire that leads to freedom, come what may.
On November 13, 2010, Suu Kyi was finally released from detention for the last time. Since then, exciting things have been happening for democracy in Burma. In April of 2012, Suu Kyi won a seat on Burma’s Parliament. The country is ruled by President Thein Sein, who is working toward greater freedom, but there is much work left to do. There are still between 1,000 and 2,000 political prisoners in Burma, and Suu Kyi has called for laws protecting ethnic and minority rights.
Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 2008; she has just made a trip to the States to receive that award. She is a woman of great strength, resolve, and compassion. A woman who, according to Smithsonian writer Joshua Hammer, “…exudes not only rock-star magnetism but also an indefinable serenity.”
Now there’s a heroine if I’ve ever encountered one.
Note: In addition to the sources I’ve linked to here, I relied on an article in the Winter 2012 issue of Ms. magazine for information about Suu Kyi’s life.