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Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar's Nelson Mandela
After decades of house arrest, Myanmar's top dissident now travels the world and sits in parliament. Is her battle won?
 
Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest for almost two decades, but is now a globe-trotting member of parliament.
Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest for almost two decades, but is now a globe-trotting member of parliament.
REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud

What role does Suu Kyi play in Myanmar?
She has made herself a powerful symbol of the democratic aspirations of the Burmese people, challenging — and eventually winning major concessions from — the repressive military rulers who governed the backward nation for a half-century. From birth, Aung San Suu Kyi seemed almost preordained to become the embodiment of her nation's hopes. Her father, Aung San, founded the Burmese nationalist movement when the country was a British colony, and negotiated its independence after World War II. But he was assassinated in July 1947, six months before the country's launch as a republic, when Aung San Suu Kyi was only 2. A 1962 coup d'état installed a military government. Suu Kyi left Burma and studied in India. She later married British scholar Michael Aris, and moved to the U.K., where she brought up her children and studied at Oxford and the University of London. She moved back to Burma to nurse her dying mother in 1988, just a few months before the country's military ruler, Gen. Ne Win, stepped down, triggering widespread pro-democracy demonstrations.
 

How did she come to the fore?
Called upon to speak as the daughter of Aung San, she roused a massive crowd with an explicit denunciation of the regime. "At the very instant I saw her, I knew, 'She is my leader,'" said Khin Maung Swe, a fellow democratic activist. After the military brutally put down the protests, Suu Kyi stayed on and embraced the role of political conscience for her 60 million compatriots. Essentially from her first public speech, said Josef Silverstein, a former Rutgers University professor and an expert on Myanmar, Suu Kyi became "the only leader that the Burmese people have acknowledged since the death of her father, in 1947."

How has the military handled her?
Fearing her charisma and intelligence, the junta put Suu Kyi under house arrest in 1989 and kept her there for most of the next two decades, sometimes in solitary confinement. Yet it never managed to suppress her political influence. The junta rechristened Burma as Myanmar, and held elections in 1990 but annulled the results after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy secured 82 percent of the seats in parliament. "Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it," she said that year, "and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it." Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, but was unable to travel to Oslo to receive it, fearing that if she left the country she would not be allowed to return. That's now changed: She recently made her first trip abroad in 24 years, to neighboring Thailand. And this week she left for Europe, where she is to visit Switzerland, France, and Ireland, address both houses of the British Parliament, and finally deliver a Nobel acceptance speech in the Norwegian capital.

Why was she released?
Suu Kyi's freedom is the most visible result of the tentative steps toward democracy that the Burmese military has been forced to take in recent years. The tipping point came in 2007, when Buddhist monks turned against the austere and repressive regime, sparking what became known as the Saffron Revolution. The monks were outraged at the suffering of the people after the junta ended fuel subsidies, sending the price of gas and many other goods skyrocketing. The junta ultimately crushed that rebellion, but in a gesture toward democracy the following year, it wrote a new constitution that created a civilian government while reserving much power for the military. The regime released Suu Kyi from house arrest in November 2010.

What is her official role now?
She has become a vital actor in Myanmar's return to democracy. After her release,
she began negotiating with the new, nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein. The government has freed some political prisoners, legalized unions, and agreed to sweeping economic reforms. Freedom of expression still falls far short of Western standards, but criticism of the status quo is now possible. Encouraged by the air of civic renewal, her NLD decided to run in by-elections this year, and Suu Kyi won a seat, officially becoming the leader of the parliamentary opposition.

So is Myanmar now a democracy?
Not really.
Asked recently how democratic Myanmar was on a scale of 1 to 10, Suu Kyi answered, "On the way to 1." Her party controls just 43 of the more than 600 seats in parliament, and the constitution still allows the military to take over as needed. This week the government declared martial law in the country's northwest after dozens of people were killed and scores of houses torched in clashes between Buddhists and a Muslim minority. Even before that outbreak of violence, Suu Kyi cautioned the international community and her own people against "reckless optimism" about Myanmar's future. "That's not going to help you," she said. "It's not going to help us."

A battleground between the U.S. and China
Myanmar has vast potential as a source of hydroelectric power and offshore oil and gas. That potential is drawing growing interest from Western energy companies, especially after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Suu Kyi in December and began to cautiously advocate lifting sanctions on investment. But China, the country's northern neighbor, has a massive head start, with Burmese investments of some $27 billion, including a major pipeline from the coast to western China set for completion next year. The giant shadow cast by Beijing over the tiny country has sparked a nationalist backlash by the Burmese; last year, Myanmar canceled a $3.6 billion hydroelectric dam project that would have sent 90 percent of its energy to China. Yet Suu Kyi has cautioned that her country's opening to the West should not lead to a hostile stance toward China. "I'm always very concerned when Burma is seen as a battling ground for the United States and China," she said this month. Myanmar, she said, "should be an area of harmony for those two big countries."

 

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