Aung San Suu Kyi has become a name synonymous with peace and reconciliation. For years, it represented the force of a woman who stood up for the democratic rights of her country and as result, spent over two decades locked in her home and unable to leave the country. More recently, in the last two months, Aung San Suu Kyi’s name has hit the headlines with her party winning a landslide of votes in the most recent Burmese by-election. But who is the woman behind this name that has floated through western political debate over the last twenty years? And what was she willing to give up fin order to improve the lives of the people of her homeland?
It’s almost impossible for me, as a young woman from a relatively comfortable western European background, to judge the life of a woman who has dedicated over two decades of her life to the cause of the Burmese people. Would I be willing to leave my friends and family in order to speak on behalf of millions of people being persecuted for their democratic beliefs?
In the 1980s Aung San Suu Kyi was living a comfortable life, married to an academic with two sons. Having studied at Oxford University, and after some time spent in Japan and Bhutan, she settled in the United Kingdom to raise her young family. A trip home to Burma changed this comfortable lifestyle. As she later said “I could not as my father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on”. As the daughter of General Aung San, the country’s independence hero who was assassinated when she was only two years old, Aung San Suu Kyi felt a responsibility to take up where her father had left off. She realised the importance of fighting against the military junta that had ruled her homeland for half a century and made the decision to lead the revolt against the then dictator, General Ne Win. The result of this decision was not only imprisonment moreover the inability to return home to her family in the UK. The decisions of this political activist led to her separation from her sons and the choice not to be with her husband on his deathbed.
So I ask again, is it possible for a young Irish woman to question the decisions Aung San Suu Kyi made all those years ago – the decision to remain in Burma in favour of returning home to be by her husband’s side? She chose her people over her family, and for years many argued that this decision had been in vain. However, her release from house arrest in 2010 and the events of the last two months have shown that support for this woman is only growing. The question now is whether she can live up to expectations.
After having spoken recently at the World Economic Forum in Thailand, she is about to embark on her European tour which will lead her to Norway to pick up the Noble Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991, followed by a trip back to her former home, the United Kingdom. But with the eyes of the world are on this 66-year-old woman can she live up to expectation? A country, which until 2010 was under military rule, seems to expect miracles from her. A nation plagued by military oppression for half a century cannot expect their country’s situation to turn around in an instant and Aung San Suu Kyi is fully aware of this. While in Bangkok, she spoke to her audience of a need for ‘healthy skepticism’ from her fellow countrymen and women. There is no perfect solution to a problem and the people of Burma should be aware of this.
Aung San Suu Kyi has often been compared to Nelson Mandela, and although Mandela solved many of the myriad problems that plagued Apartheid South Africa in the early 90s, the problems of racism, segregation and poverty still plague this African nation. Similar to Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi has the experience, intelligence and motivation to truly make a difference in her home country. But like South Africa she is dealing with a country that needs to overcome decades of ill treatment and torment. Her first European tour is only the beginning of a long road to reform. With a parliament that still withholds 25% of its seats for military officials, it seems the politics of her country are still unable to truly recognize the importance of democratic, fair and transparent national elections. Optimism is an essential trait in the growth and promotion of a democracy, but Aung San Suu Kyi is right to approach change with slight hesitancy. Can a woman in her 60s change the face of a country overshadowed by decades of autocratic rule? The people of Burma certainly hope so.