For more than 20 years now, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma has been one of the most admired women in the world. But until last week, most of the world had never heard her speak. That’s because she has spent most of these years under strict house arrest.
Her political party, the National League for Democracy, swept the parliamentary elections that were held on April 1. Aung San Suu Kyi herself was elected. She said, with elegant understatement, “We hope that this will be the beginning of a new era where there will be more emphasis on the role of the people in the everyday politics of our country.”
She is the daughter of the nation, in a way: Her father was Aung San, Burma’s independence hero. He was assassinated in 1947, when Aung San Suu Kyi was two.
In due course, she went to Oxford University, where she read “PPE”: philosophy, politics, and economics. While at Oxford, she met her future husband, Michael Aris, a scholar of Himalayan culture.
During their courtship, she wrote him, “Sometimes I am beset by fears that circumstances and national considerations might tear us apart just when we are so happy in each other that separation would be a torment.”
They married on New Year’s Day 1972. She asked him to take a vow before the vows. As Aris explained it later, she asked him to promise that he would not “stand between her and her country.”
The couple had two sons, Alexander and Kim. In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma, to care for her mother. She has not left the country since.
In that same year, 1988, Burma was seized by a military junta. A week after the junta took power, Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies formed the National League for Democracy. Aung San’s daughter was newly enlisted in politics.
A famous incident occurred when she was walking with a group of her associates. Soldiers lined up in front of them and told them to stop; otherwise, they would shoot. Aung San Suu Kyi asked the others to step aside, and she went forward by herself. After what must have been some heart-stopping seconds, for all concerned, the commanding officer ordered the soldiers not to fire.
Aung San Suu Kyi later said, “It seemed so much simpler to provide them with a single target than to bring everyone else in.”
In May 1990, the government did something interesting: It held free elections. The National League for Democracy won in a landslide. The government then ignored the elections.