Aung San Suu Kyi accepts her Nobel Peace Prize… 21 years later

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s pro-democracy leader, was in Oslo yesterday to accept her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. She was unable to accept the award at the time due to being under house arrest by Burma’s military junta. Ms Suu Kyi has been campaigning for democracy in Burma since 1988 and was awarded the prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”. She was released from house arrest in November 2010 having spent most of the past 21 years imprisoned at her family home on the banks of Inya lake in Rangoon.

Aung San and family (Khin Kyi, Aung San Oo, Aung San Suu Kyi (bottom), Aung San Lin)

Aung San Suu Kyi was born in 1945 to Khin Kyi and Major General Aung San, a man who was considered something of a hero in Burma. During the Second World War General Aung San helped the allies defeat their Japanese occupiers and in January of 1947 he negotiated Burma’s independence from Great Britain. Six months later though, Aung San, his brother and seven other people including five of his cabinet ministers, were assassinated in the council chamber in Rangoon while the executive council was in session. The killing was ordered by former Prime Minister U Saw who was executed for his role in the assassination the following year.

Ms Suu Kyi spent her early life growing up in India and then moved to Oxford to complete her studies. At college she met Michael Aris, a leading western author of Tibetan and Bhutanese culture and in 1972 they were married. They spent the next year living in Bhutan for Aris’ job, before they finally settled back in Oxford where they raised their two sons Alexander and Kim.

Aung San Suu Kyi and Michael Aris © pbase.com

Despite being away from Burma it was never far from her thoughts and in 1988, when she received a call to say her mother had had a stroke, she returned to Rangoon to nurse her. Thinking she would be there for only a few weeks she couldn’t have known that she would never again return to the UK. The woman who had lived for the past 16 years as a housewife and mother was about to lead the uprising of a brutal regime.

She arrived in Burma at a time when the country’s long time military leader General Ne Win had just stepped down from power. He had been in charge for the last 26 years, impoverishing the country due to his poor management of the economy. His departure signalled a chance for democratic reform and news of the arrival of General Aung San’s daughter soon spread around the capital.

When a delegation of academics asked her to head a pro democracy campaign, she agreed to do it temporarily, thinking that once the elections had been held she would be able to return to her family.

Inspired by the non-violent campaigns of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi she organised rallies and travelled around the country, calling for peaceful democratic reform. During one demonstration, Suu Kyi gave a speech in Rangoon where she said “I could not as my father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on”. The demonstrations though, were brutally suppressed by the army and they seized power in a coup on 18 September 1988 and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. When word of this got back to her husband he took extended leave from his job so that he could fight for his wife’s cause behind the scenes, raising her profile in the world so that she would never be harmed by the junta.

When the military called national elections in 1990, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won 59% of the votes which gave them 80% of parliamentary seats however the junta refused to hand over power and Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest.

Suu Kyi was granted freedom in 1995 and fearing that she would never be allowed back into Burma if she left, Michael and their children flew out to see her. It was the last time she would ever see her husband. Three years later he broke the news that he had terminal cancer. He applied for a visa so that they could say goodbye but the application was rejected. The military told Suu Kyi she could leave the country to visit him but, again, she knew she would never be allowed back and everything they had fought for would be lost. Michael told her she was not to consider it and Suu Kyi made the painful decision to stay. He died in 1999.

A year later Suu Kyi was again put under house arrest but was finally released on 13th November 2010. Since then the military have handed over power to retired General Thein Sein, who is the leader of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. He was sworn in as president in March 2011.

Suu Kyi’s NLD party have since re-registered as a political party and in the 2012 national by-elections, held in April, the party won 43 of the 45 seats contested. A few weeks later Suu Kyi took the oath and became leader of the opposition.

Aung San Suu Kyi on the day of her release, 13th November 2010 © AP Photo

Last month, for the first time in 24 years, she travelled outside of Burma to visit Switzerland and Norway. This tour of Europe will also include a visit to Ireland and England in the next few days. It is thought that Burma’s current leaders will allow her to return to the country as they try to improve their image abroad and lift current western sanctions.

Yesterday Aung San Suu Kyi was finally able to deliver her Nobel acceptance speech at Oslo’s City Hall.  Some of the money she received as part of the award helps fund London-based charity Prospect Burma, which gives young Burmese people access to education.

“It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” – Suu Kyi in Freedom from Fear (1991).

The full transcript of Aung San Suu Kyi’s acceptance speech can be found on the Nobel Prize website at http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1991/kyi-lecture_en.html

For more information about Prospect Burma please see – http://www.prospectburma.org/

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