Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Struggle for Democracy in Burma


Rich in natural resources, Burma was once one of the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia. Today, after 37 years of military rule and isolationist policies, it is one of the poorest; and it has the second worst human rights record in the world, after Algeria.


Burma is situated in Southeast Asia bordering Thailand, India, Laos and China.

Burma was a colony of Great Britain for over 200 years. Before the British

conquered Burma, it was not a unified state with the boundaries it has now. Burma was composed of eight major ethnic groups: Karen, Shan, Kachin, Chin, Arakan, Mon,

Karenni, and the Burmans. Each province had its own King and the people were considered his property. Except for border trade, there was very little contact made between the different kingdoms. Each ethnic group had its own system of governance, beliefs, and culture.


The leader of the struggle for independence from the British was a young student at Rangoon University named Aung San. He believed that the best way to defeat the British was by overthrowing the government. He made contact with the Japanese military that was, at the time, sweeping through Asia. In 1941, San returned from Japanese training and recruited 30 men to kick the British out. These 30 men, known as the "Thirty Comrades," forced the British to pull out of Burma.


Aung San was assassinated on July 19, 1947 -- nearly 6-months before independence

 was celebrated. Burma experienced many years of democratic rule-through 1961. Burma's many ethnic groups were slowly beginning to work out previous differences, but on the eve of a national reconciliation conference between all ethnic groups, the leader of Burma's military, Ne Win, staged a coup. Ne Win claimed that without military rule, the ethnic groups would all secede, leaving a small nation in shambles. He arrested

Prime Minister U Nu, abolished the constitution, and installed a new military government. Adopting isolationist policies, he enacted a new program: the Burmese

Way to Socialism. The government took over all industry, education, bank, and communications systems. No one was allowed to enter or leave the country. The economy crumbled.


Following the coup in 1962, there were a series of revolts against the new government. Protests in 1974 and 1976 witnessed large political dissent. These protests were led mostly by students and the students' actions reflected the hopes and aspirations of the Burmese people. The regime squashed all demonstrations with brute force. The government imprisoned thousands of democratic activists and blew up Rangoon Universities student union building with many students inside.


On March 13, 1988, Rangoon Institute of Technology students protested against the local party authorities for the murder of a fellow student. The economic situation had continued to worsen and the government had cancelled several currency denominations. The demonstrations were met with brutal force by the army and riot police, leading to dozens of civilian deaths. The leaders of the student demonstrations-Min Ko Naing and Moe Thee Zuhn went into hiding.


On August, 8th, 1988, the largest demonstrations the people dared their largest demonstration ever. Organized by students, the nation-wide demonstrates included workers, monks, farmers, civil servants, and thousands of members of the armed services. People assembled throughout all the major cities in Burma and over 200,000 people assembled for non-violent demonstration in Rangoon, taking turns giving speeches. At approximately midnight, troops fired into the demonstrations. What followed was one of the most brutal massacres of non-violent demonstrators in history.


Housewives, school children, farmers, teachers and Buddhist monks were shot at point blank range. The students took the worst of it. Countless students were beaten, bayoneted and shot, others abducted, tortured and imprisoned. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 10,000 were killed, but it is impossible to know the exact number since the regime burned all the bodies to hide the evidence of its brutality.


Early Life Of Aung San Suu Kyi

Born on 19 June 1945 in Rangoon (now Yangon), Burma (now Myanmar). Her father, Aung San, is Burma's most respected independence hero. Her mother, Ma Khin Kyi, is a senior nurse at Rangoon general hospital and will become a leading public figure and diplomat.

1947 - Suu Kyi's father is assassinated in Rangoon on 19 July.

1960 - She moves to New Delhi, the capital of India, when her mother is appointed Burma's ambassador to that country. While in India she becomes interested in Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance.

1964-67 - She studies for a BA in philosophy, politics and economics at St Hugh's College, Oxford. Marries Michael Aris in 1972. They spend periods in Bhutan, India, and Japan, but return to England where they raise two sons, Alexander and Kim.

1988 - On 31 March Suu Kyi receives a telephone call informing her that her mother has suffered a severe stroke. She flies to Rangoon the next day.


Chronology of Struggles in Burma

She arrives during the student-led protests against Burma's military regime.


On 26 August Suu Kyi addresses a rally of 500,000 gathered in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. "I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on," she says. "This national crisis could, in fact, be called the second struggle for independence."


She calls on the military government to cease using force and reiterates her proposal for the establishment of a consultative committee to help resolve the crisis. Following a bloody internal power struggle within the government, it is announced that there has been a military coup.


 The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), composed of 21 senior military officers led by general Saw Maung, rules Burma. SLORC claims it will turn over power after free and fair elections but political gatherings of more than four persons are banned and force is again used to suppress demonstrators.


 The opposition is formally organized into the National League for Democracy (NLD) on 24 September, with Suu Kyi as secretary-general. Defying the ban, she speaks at over 100 public meetings during extensive campaign tours across the country. She advocates nonviolent protest, urges the UN to intevene.  (Suu Kyi's mother dies on 27 December.)


1989 - On 5 April, while touring the country in support of democracy, Suu Kyi is confronted by soldiers blocking a street down which she and her supporters are walking. When the soldiers threaten to shoot, Suu Kyi asks her companions to step aside and then walks up to and past the rifles aimed at her. At the last moment the soldiers are ordered not to fire. "It seemed so much simpler to provide them with a single target than to bring everyone else in," she later says.


 In June the country's name is officially changed to the Union of Myanmar, and the name of the capital from Rangoon to Yangon. Suu Kyi is placed under house arrest in Rangoon on 20 July for "endangering the state". She is only allowed visits from members of her immediate family.


On arrest she begins a hunger strike in support of her jailed colleagues. She ends her fast after 12 days when the regime assures her that the political prisoners will not be maltreated. The military offer to free her if she leaves Burma but she refuses to go until the country is returned to civilian government and political prisoners are freed.


 1990 - When SLORC allows multiparty general elections on 27 May the NLD wins 82% of the seats contested. The military regime ignores the results, refuses to allow the parliament to convene, and jails the NLD's elected candidates.


 The regime revokes Suu Kyi's right to visits from her immediate family in July. All outside contact is forbidden, including by post. Suu Kyi's plight comes to world attention. She is described as 'Burma 's Gandhi'. The secretary-general of the UN repeatedly calls for her release, and governments around the world urge SLORC to respect the election results. On 14 October she receives the Nobel Peace Prize "for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights".


 "She became the leader of a democratic opposition which employs nonviolent means to resist a regime characterised by brutality," the Nobel Committee says. "She also emphasises the need for conciliation between the sharply divided regions and ethnic groups in her country.


 "Suu Kyi's struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression."

 "In the good fight for peace and reconciliation, we are dependent on persons who set examples, persons who can symbolize what we are seeking and mobilize the best in us. Aung San Suu Kyi is just such a person," says the chairman of the Nobel Committee.


 "She unites deep commitment and tenacity with a vision in which the end and the means form a single unit ... It is not least Aung San Suu Kyi's impressive courage which makes her such a potent symbol, like Gandhi ... She has indeed taken up her inheritance, and is now in her own right the symbol of the revolt against violence and the struggle for a free society, not only in Burma, but also in the rest of Asia and in many other parts of the world.”


 Suu Kyi announces that she will use US$1.3 million prize money to establish a health and education trust for the Burmese people.  In December her book, 'Freedom from Fear', is published.


 1994 - The military now say they can detain Suu Kyi for up to six years without charge or trial. During the year the UN Commission on Human Rights reports that torture, summary executions and forced labor are commonplace in Burma, along with "abuse of women, politically motivated arrests and detention, forced replacement, important restrictions on the freedom of expression and association, and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities".


 1995 - Suu Kyi is freed from house arrest on 10 July but is not allowed to travel outside Rangoon. She continues her calls for dialogue with SLORC and a peaceful transition to a democratic government, using weekend talks to crowds outside her house to convey her message to the Burmese people and the world.


 The NLD reappoints her as secretary-general on 10 October. In November the NLD walks out of the national constitutional convention, saying that the convention's undemocratic composition is unacceptable. In December, the UN general assembly condemns the military regime for human rights violations.


Over Christmas, Suu Kyi's husband Michael travels to Burma to be with his wife. It is the last time the couple will meet.


 1996 - In May over 256 members of the NLD are arrested or detained. In June the regime forbids the unauthorized writing of a state constitution. The penalty for violation is 20 years imprisonment. On 19 June, 100 of Suu Kyi's friends are prevented from visiting her at home to celebrate her fifty-second birthday.


 Large-scale student demonstrations against the regime break out in October, continuing until the end of the year. SLORC detains over 200 NLD activists and confines Suu Kyi to her residence.


 1997 - In April the US agrees to place economic sanctions on Burma in protest against the regime's human rights abuses. The sanctions, which are implemented on 21 May, ban investment, actions to facilitate investment, and attempts to evade the prohibitions. The US government also stops its foreign aid to Burma and blocks aid through international organizations.


On 15 November (after complaints from about corruption in Burma from Indonesian dictator/investor Suharto) SLORC dissolves itself, reforming as the 19-member State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), chaired by Than Shwe.


1998 - In July Suu Kyi attempts to leave Rangoon to meet with NLD officials but is stopped by the military at the city's border. After a five-day standoff she is forced back to her home. She again attempts to leave Rangoon in August and is again stopped


1999 - Suu Kyi's husband Michael is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. The military regime refuses to grant him a visa to visit his wife before he dies but says it will allow Suu Kyi to leave the country to visit him. She refuses; fearing she will not be allowed back into the country if she leaves. Her husband dies on 27 March.


In May, the US government renews the sanctions on new investment in Burma. The European Union enacts limited sanctions in October.


 2000 - Suu Kyi is stopped by police when she attempts to travel to the countryside on 24 August. The standoff, during which she and her supporters remain camped by the roadside, lasts until 2 September when she is forced to return to the capital and is placed under virtual house arrest. On 7 December US president Bill Clinton awards her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour the US government can give to a civilian.


2001 - Suu Kyi remains under virtual house arrest, although it is revealed in January that UN-brokered talks between her and the regime recommenced in October 2000.


 The military is said to be prepared to allow a return to democracy provided there is a transitional power-sharing arrangement between themselves and the NLD. They also want guaranteed immunity from prosecution for past human rights abuses, and a commitment from Suu Kyi that she will give up any personal political ambition.


 2002 - Following a secret meeting between Suu Kyi and Than Shwe in January the regime steps up the release of political prisoners and the NLD is allowed to reopen 35 of its branches in Rangoon.


 On 6 May Suu Kyi is released from her 19-month detention. The restrictions on her political activity are lifted. She is free to travel around the country and to lead the NLD, although her activities will be closely monitored by the regime.


 In her first press conference after her release she publicly reaffirms her support for a continuation of the sanctions on foreign aid, investment and trade in Burma while the military regime remains in place. She expresses disappointment with the continued slow release of the country's estimated 1500 political prisoners but says she is ready to start talks with the regime on a transition to civilian rule.


 "I am sorry to have kept you waiting," she begins. "My release is not a major triumph for democracy; my freedom is not the object of our struggle. I have never wavered in my commitment to achieving democracy. Unless we can attain democracy by peaceful means we will simply be storing up more trouble for our people in the future."


 2003 - In January the military regime allows two representatives from the international human rights organization Amnesty International to travel to Burma for "dialogue with the authorities". The 10-day visit, which begins on 31 January, is the first time Amnesty has been allowed to enter the country.  Initial reports are that Amnesty International will report grave injustices in the Burmese legal system.


Buddhism and the Faith of Aung San Suu Kyi

from John Pilger’s 1996 interview with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (http://www.users.bigpond.com/nlevine/burma2.htm)


JP: How can you reclaim the democracy that you won at the ballot box from the uncompromising and brutal power that confronts you?


SK: We are not the first people to have had to face an uncompromising, brutal power in the quest for freedom and basic human rights. I think we have to depend chiefly on the will of our own people for democracy. In Buddhism we are taught the four basic ingredients for success: first you must have the will to want it; then you must have the right kind of attitude; then you must have perseverance; and then you must have wisdom. So we hope to combine these four. The will of the people for democracy is there and many of us have the right kind of spirit or attitude. A number of our people have shown tremendous perseverance; and I hope we'll acquire wisdom as we go along the way... But it still comes down to the fact that on one side there is a power that has all the guns... I think it is getting more difficult in this world to resolve things through military means. The fact that the authorities are so keen on attacking us in their newspapers indicates that they themselves are not depending on guns alone...



From the Nobel Prize acceptance speech delivered on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi, by her son Alexander Aris:

 . . . [We should not forget] the plight of those in the countryside and towns, living in poverty and destitution, those in prison, battered and tortured; the plight of the young people, the hope of Burma, dying of malaria in the jungles to which they have fled; that of the Buddhist monks, beaten and dishonoured. . . . . .


Although my mother is often described as a political dissident who strives by peaceful means for democratic change, we should remember that her quest is basically spiritual. As she has said, "The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit", and she has written of the "essential spiritual aims" of the struggle.


The realization of this depends solely on human responsibility. At the root of that responsibility lies, and I quote, "the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end, at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitation... ". "To live the full life," she says, "one must have the courage to bear the responsibility of the needs of others … one must want to bear this responsibility."


And she links this firmly to her faith when she writes, "...Buddhism, the foundation of traditional Burmese culture, places the greatest value on man, who alone of all beings can achieve the supreme state of Buddhahood. Each man has in him the potential to realize the truth through his own will and endeavour and to help others to realize it." Finally she says, "The quest for democracy in Burma is the struggle of a people to live whole, meaningful lives as free and equal members of the world community. It is part of the unceasing human endeavour to prove that the spirit of man can transcends the flaws of his nature.”  http://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1991/kyi-acceptance.html


(from 1995 interview with the Shambala Sun)


ASSK: Well, I was born a Buddhist and brought up a Buddhist, so it is very difficult for me to separate what is Buddhist in me from what is not Buddhist in me. It's a question that I find very difficult to answer.