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.
The next year, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Burma’s rulers would have let her go to Oslo to collect it, but they would not have let her back in the country. She did not want to be an exile. She wanted to stand her ground.
The same was true in 1983, when Lech Walesa won the peace prize. The Polish government would have let him go to Oslo, but he could not have returned. Walesa thought it important to fight on home soil.
Technically speaking, only three Nobel peace laureates have been prevented from going to Oslo: Carl von Ossietzky, a prisoner of the Nazis, in 1936; Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet physicist and dissident, in 1975; and Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese political prisoner, in 2010.
At the prize ceremony in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was represented by her husband and sons. Alexander, age 18, gave the acceptance speech. He said, “The Burmese people can today hold their heads a little higher in the knowledge that in this far-distant land their suffering has been heard and heeded.”
When night fell, Kim, age 14, lit the first torch in the traditional torchlight parade.
On the day of the ceremony, a rally was held for Aung San Suu Kyi at Rangoon University. It was broken up by the police. In front of the new laureate’s house, 300 soldiers were deployed. The regime seemed spooked.
Michael Aris died in 1999, on his 53rd birthday. He had last seen his wife at Christmas 1995. She was not allowed to emerge, politically, until now. But she has always been a symbol, a rallying point, and inspiration.
The Nobel Peace Prize can be a powerful weapon. In an interview, Lech Walesa told me that, without the prize, his Solidarity cause could never have succeeded.
Sometimes, however, the prize seems not to make a dent. It did little for Ossietzky. It has not sprung Liu Xiaobo. But has it improved his conditions, and will it help the cause of Chinese democracy?
One prize that Aung San Suu Kyi’s resembles is the 1989 prize to the Dalai Lama: which increased that leader’s visibility and boosted the cause of Tibet. That land is still under a stranglehold. But the world at large knows about it.
The world, much of it, knows about Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma too. She is not only a heroine of her country; she is a heroine of democracy in general. She has said that, when she’s free to travel and return, the first country she visits will be Norway. She will give her long-delayed Nobel lecture. It will once more be good to hear her voice.
Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review and the author of Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World. For an inscribed copy, go to the NR Store, here. To get the book via Amazon.com, go here.