Stephen Shaver/AFP/Getty Images
Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, shown in this May 2002 file photo, continues to be an influential leader for the pro-democracy movement despite her detention.
There was an electrifying moment in the Myanmar political crisis last month.
A group of Buddhist monks stopped their protest march at the steel gate of the compound where Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is under military house arrest. As they chanted the sutra "loving kindness," the diminutive 62-year-old opened the gate and stood in a position of prayer.
"That's when it became clear that the previously religious marches had turned into political opposition," says Priscilla Clapp, who was the chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Yangon from 1999 to 2002.
Clapp says Suu Kyi's influence on the movement is "tremendously powerful," even though the democracy advocate is being held virtually incommunicado in her home. In an apparent acknowledgement of that power, the military allowed a United Nations representative to meet with her on Sept. 30.
The Pro-Democracy Leader's Role
In news reports, Suu Kyi has been described as "prime-minister-elect." In fact, she is not. The confusion arises from an election in 1990, which her party, the National League for Democracy, won decisively, despite vote fraud and intimidation by the military. Suu Kyi, though, was unable to run in that election because she was under house arrest — and she was constitutionally barred from serving as head of state because she was married to a foreigner. In any case, the military rulers nullified the results they didn't like and kept themselves in control.
Clapp, whose position in the country was the equivalent of U.S. ambassador, says Suu Kyi's real strength is as the intellectual leader of the democracy movement. She says that Suu Kyi can work with some members of the military leadership, and that she understands the need for them to maintain security during the transition to democracy. During a brief period when she was able to travel the country in 2002, Suu Kyi focused on citizens' obligations in a democracy, rather than promises of freedom, Clapp says.
Aung San Suu Kyi's Upbringing
Aung San Suu Kyi was born into turbulent Burmese politics in 1945, two years before her father, Gen. Aung San, negotiated Burma's freedom from the British Empire. Just before independence, gunmen burst into a room where Aung San was meeting with his top aides, and massacred them all, leaving nine people dead.
Suu Kyi grew up Rangoon, where her mother, Khin Kyi, was active in the Burmese government. She attended an English-speaking Catholic school, then studied in New Delhi, while her mother was the Burmese ambassador to India. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree from Oxford and obtained her Ph.D. in Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Suu Kyi seemed destined for an academic career, especially after she met and married Michael Aris, a British scholar and expert on Tibet. The couple lived and worked in Bhutan and Japan, and had two sons, Alexander and Kim.
Standing Strong Despite Hardships
It wasn't until 1988, when she returned to Rangoon to care for her ailing mother, that Suu Kyi's career as a democracy advocate began.
She came home as a series of student protests was escalating into a widespread uprising against the military government of Gen. Ne Win. Although Win's government fell, the military rulers reorganized themselves and crushed the uprising, reportedly by killing thousands of students, monks and other protestors. The military has denied this, saying that only a few dozen people were killed.
During this period, Suu Kyi helped to organize the National League for Democracy, a movement that was strongly influenced by Mohandas Gandhi's teachings on nonviolent political action. In 1989, the military government placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, but offered to release her if she would agree to leave the country. She refused.
After the military nullified the results of the 1990 election, Suu Kyi garnered widespread attention and support for her cause. She received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and in 1991, the Nobel Prize for Peace. The military released her from house arrest in 1995, but made it clear that if she left the country, she would not be allowed to return.
When her husband, Michael Aris, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, she chose not to go to him in Britain, and the Myanmar government refused him a visa to see her. They never saw one another again before he died in 1999.
Except for the brief period in 2002 and 2003 when she was allowed to travel inside the country, Suu Kyi has been held, either in prison or under house arrest. Her detention has been extended year by year, as Myanmar's military rulers realized that her influence had grown, rather than waned. Her recent talks with a U.N. special emissary suggest that she will have to be part of any resolution to the latest crisis.