Overview of life
Aung San Suu Kyi, born 19 June 1945) is a Burmese politician, diplomat, and author who is the First and incumbent State Counsellor and Leader of the National League for Democracy. She is also the first woman to serve as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Myanmar, the Minister of the President’s Office, the Minister of Electric Power and Energy, and the Minister of Education in President Htin Kyaw’s Cabinet, and from 2012 to 2016 was a Pyithu Hluttaw MP for Kawhmu Township.
The youngest daughter of Aung San, Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar, and Khin Kyi, Aung San Suu Kyi was born in Rangoon, British Burma. After graduating from the University of Delhi in 1964 and the University of Oxford in 1968, she worked at the United Nations for three years. She married Michael Aris in 1972, and gave birth to two children. Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence in the 1988 Uprisings, and became the General Secretary of the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD). In the 1990 elections, NLD won 81% of the seats in Parliament, but the results were nullified, as the military refused to hand over power, resulting in an international outcry. She had, however, already been detained under house arrest before the elections. She remained under house arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010, becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners.
Her party boycotted the 2010 elections, resulting in a decisive victory for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Aung San Suu Kyi became a Pyithu Hluttaw MP while her party won 43 of the 45 vacant seats in the 2012 by-elections. In the 2015 elections, her party won a landslide victory, taking 86% of the seats in the Assembly of the Union – well more than the 67 percent supermajority needed to ensure that its preferred candidates were elected President and Second Vice President in the Presidential Electoral College. Although she was prohibited from becoming the President due to a clause in the constitution – her late husband and children are foreign citizens – she assumed the newly created role of State Counsellor, a role akin to a Prime Minister or a head of government.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s honours include the Nobel Peace Prize, which she won in 1991.
Aung San Suu Kyi was born on 19 June 1945 in Rangoon (now Yangon), British Burma. According to Peter Popham, she was born in a small village outside Rangoon called Hmway Saung. Her father, Aung San, founded the modern Burmese army and negotiated Burma’s independence from the British Empire in 1947; he was assassinated by his rivals in the same year. She grew up with her mother, Khin Kyi, and two brothers, Aung San Lin and Aung San Oo, in Rangoon. Aung San Lin died at the age of eight, when he drowned in an ornamental lake on the grounds of the house. Her elder brother emigrated to San Diego, California, becoming a United States citizen. After Aung San Lin’s death, the family moved to a house by Inya Lake where Aung San Suu Kyi met people of various backgrounds, political views and religions. She was educated in Methodist English High School (now Basic Education High School No. 1 Dagon) for much of her childhood in Burma, where she was noted as having a talent for learning languages. She speaks four languages: Burmese, English, French and Japanese. She is a Theravada Buddhist.
Aung San Suu Kyi at the age of 6
Suu Kyi’s mother, Khin Kyi, gained prominence as a political figure in the newly formed Burmese government. She was appointed Burmese ambassador to India and Nepal in 1960, and Aung San Suu Kyi followed her there. She studied in the Convent of Jesus and Mary School in New Delhi, and graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi with a degree in politics in 1964. Suu Kyi continued her education at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, obtaining a B.A degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1967, graduating with a third and M.A degree in politics in 1968. After graduating, she lived in New York City with family friend Ma Than E, who was once a popular Burmese pop singer. She worked at the United Nations for three years, primarily on budget matters, writing daily to her future husband, Dr. Michael Aris. On 1 January 1972, Aung San Suu Kyi and Aris, a scholar of Tibetan culture, living abroad in Bhutan, were married. The following year she gave birth to their first son, Alexander Aris, in London; their second son, Kim, was born in 1977. Between 1985 and 1987, Suu Kyi was working toward an M.Phil degree in Burmese literature as a research student at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She was elected as an Honorary Fellow of SOAS in 1990. For two years, she was a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS) in Shimla, India. She also worked for the government of the Union of Burma.
In 1988, Suu Kyi returned to Burma, at first to tend for her ailing mother but later to lead the pro-democracy movement. Aris’ visit in Christmas 1995 turned out to be the last time that he and Suu Kyi met, as Suu Kyi remained in Burma and the Burmese dictatorship denied him any further entry visas. Aris was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 which was later found to be terminal. Despite appeals from prominent figures and organizations, including the United States, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Pope John Paul II, the Burmese government would not grant Aris a visa, saying that they did not have the facilities to care for him, and instead urged Aung San Suu Kyi to leave the country to visit him. She was at that time temporarily free from house arrest but was unwilling to depart, fearing that she would be refused re-entry if she left, as she did not trust the military junta’s assurance that she could return.
Aris died on his 53rd birthday on 27 March 1999. Since 1989, when his wife was first placed under house arrest, he had seen her only five times, the last of which was for Christmas in 1995. She was also separated from her children, who live in the United Kingdom, but starting in 2011, they have visited her in Burma.
On 2 May 2008, after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, Suu Kyi lost the roof of her house and lived in virtual darkness after losing electricity in her dilapidated lakeside residence. She used candles at night as she was not provided any generator set. Plans to renovate and repair the house were announced in August 2009. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest on 13 November 2010.
Coincidentally, when Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988, the long-time military leader of Burma and head of the ruling party, General Ne Win, stepped down. Mass demonstrations for democracy followed that event on 8 August 1988 (8–8–88, a day seen as auspicious), which were violently suppressed in what came to be known as the 8888 Uprising. On 26 August 1988, she addressed half a million people at a mass rally in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda in the capital, calling for a democratic government. However, in September, a new military junta took power.
Influenced by both Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and more specifically by Buddhist concepts, Aung San Suu Kyi entered politics to work for democratization, helped found the National League for Democracy on 27 September 1988, but was put under house arrest on 20 July 1989. Offered freedom if she left the country, she refused. Despite her philosophy of non-violence, a group of ex-military commanders and senior politicians who joined NLD during the crisis believed that she was too confrontational and left NLD. However, she retained enormous popularity and support among NLD youths with whom she spent most of her time.
During her time under house arrest, Suu Kyi devoted herself to Buddhist meditation practices and to studying Buddhist thought. This deeper interest in Buddhism is reflected in her writings as more emphasis is put on love and compassion. There also emerged more discussion on the compatibility of democracy and Buddhism and the ability of gaining freedom from an authoritarian government through Buddhism.
During the crisis, the previous democratically elected Prime Minister of Burma, U Nu initiated to form an interim government and invited opposition leaders to join him. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had signaled his readiness to recognize the interim government. However, Aung San Suu Kyi categorically rejected U Nu’s plan by saying “the future of the opposition would be decided by masses of the people”. Ex-Brigadier General Aung Gyi, another influential politician at the time of the 8888 crisis, followed the suit and rejected the plan after Suu Kyi’s refusal. Aung Gyi later accused several NLD members of being communists and resigned from the party.
Suu Kyi meets with Edgardo Boeninger of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in 1995.
1990 general election
In 1990, the military junta called a general election, in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) received 59% of the votes, guaranteeing NLD 80% of the parliament seats. Some claim that Aung San Suu Kyi would have assumed the office of Prime Minister; in fact, however, as she was not permitted, she did not stand as a candidate in the elections (although being a MP is not a strict prerequisite for becoming PM in most parliamentary systems). Instead, the results were nullified and the military refused to hand over power, resulting in an international outcry. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest at her home on University Avenue (16°49′32″N 96°9′1″E) in Rangoon, during which time she was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990, and the Nobel Peace Prize the year after. Her sons Alexander and Kim accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf. Aung San Suu Kyi used the Nobel Peace Prize’s 1.3 million USD prize money to establish a health and education trust for the Burmese people. Around this time, Suu Kyi chose non-violence as an expedient political tactic, stating in 2007, “I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for political and practical reasons.”
On 9 November 1996, the motorcade that Aung San Suu Kyi was traveling in with other National League for Democracy leaders Tin Oo and Kyi Maung, was attacked in Yangon. About 200 men swooped down on the motorcade, wielding metal chains, metal batons, stones and other weapons. The car that Aung San Suu Kyi was in had its rear window smashed, and the car with Tin Oo and Kyi Maung had its rear window and two backdoor windows shattered. It is believed the offenders were members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) who were allegedly paid 500 kyats (@ USD $0.50) each to participate. The NLD lodged an official complaint with the police, and according to reports the government launched an investigation, but no action was taken. (Amnesty International 120297)
Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for a total of 15 years over a 21-year period, on numerous occasions, since she began her political career, during which time she was prevented from meeting her party supporters and international visitors. In an interview, Suu Kyi said that while under house arrest she spent her time reading philosophy, politics and biographies that her husband had sent her. She also passed the time playing the piano, and was occasionally allowed visits from foreign diplomats as well as from her personal physician.
Although under house arrest, Suu Kyi was granted permission to leave Burma under the condition that she never return. Rather than abandon her people, Suu Kyi submitted to house arrest and decided to sacrifice a life with her husband and her two young sons, in order to stand by her people: “As a mother, the greater sacrifice was giving up my sons, but I was always aware of the fact that others had given up more than me. I never forget that my colleagues who are in prison suffer not only physically, but mentally for their families who have no security outside- in the larger prison of Burma under authoritarian rule.” Her loyalty to the people of Burma and her solidarity with those imprisoned for their pro-democratic acts have earned her deep respect among the Burmese people.
The media were also prevented from visiting Suu Kyi, as occurred in 1998 when journalist Maurizio Giuliano, after photographing her, was stopped by customs officials who then confiscated all his films, tapes and some notes. In contrast, Suu Kyi did have visits from government representatives, such as during her autumn 1994 house arrest when she met the leader of Burma, General Than Shwe and General Khin Nyunt on 20 September in the first meeting since she had been placed in detention. On several occasions during Suu Kyi’s house arrest, she had periods of poor health and as a result was hospitalized.
The Burmese government detained and kept Suu Kyi imprisoned because it viewed her as someone “likely to undermine the community peace and stability” of the country, and used both Article 10(a) and 10(b) of the 1975 State Protection Act (granting the government the power to imprison people for up to five years without a trial), and Section 22 of the “Law to Safeguard the State Against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts” as legal tools against her. She continuously appealed her detention, and many nations and figures continued to call for her release and that of 2,100 other political prisoners in the country. On 12 November 2010, days after the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won elections conducted after a gap of 20 years, the junta finally agreed to sign orders allowing Suu Kyi’s release, and Suu Kyi’s house arrest term came to an end on 13 November 2010.
United Nations involvement
The United Nations (UN) has attempted to facilitate dialogue between the junta and Suu Kyi. On 6 May 2002, following secret confidence-building negotiations led by the UN, the government released her; a government spokesman said that she was free to move “because we are confident that we can trust each other”. Aung San Suu Kyi proclaimed “a new dawn for the country”. However, on 30 May 2003 in an incident similar to the 1996 attack on her, a government-sponsored mob attacked her caravan in the northern village of Depayin, murdering and wounding many of her supporters. Aung San Suu Kyi fled the scene with the help of her driver, Kyaw Soe Lin, but was arrested upon reaching Ye-U. The government imprisoned her at Insein Prison in Rangoon. After she underwent a hysterectomy in September 2003, the government again placed her under house arrest in Rangoon.
The results from the UN facilitation have been mixed; Razali Ismail, UN special envoy to Burma, met with Aung San Suu Kyi. Ismail resigned from his post the following year, partly because he was denied re-entry to Burma on several occasions. Several years later in 2006, Ibrahim Gambari, UN Undersecretary-General (USG) of Department of Political Affairs, met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the first visit by a foreign official since 2004. He also met with Suu Kyi later the same year. On 2 October 2007 Gambari returned to talk to her again after seeing Than Shwe and other members of the senior leadership in Naypyidaw. State television broadcast Suu Kyi with Gambari, stating that they had met twice. This was Suu Kyi’s first appearance in state media in the four years since her current detention began.
The United Nations Working Group for Arbitrary Detention published an Opinion that Aung San Suu Kyi’s deprivation of liberty was arbitrary and in contravention of Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, and requested that the authorities in Burma set her free, but the authorities ignored the request at that time. The U.N. report said that according to the Burmese Government’s reply, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has not been arrested, but has only been taken into protective custody, for her own safety”, and while “it could have instituted legal action against her under the country’s domestic legislation … it has preferred to adopt a magnanimous attitude, and is providing her with protection in her own interests.”
Such claims were rejected by Brig-General Khin Yi, Chief of Myanmar Police Force (MPF). On 18 January 2007, the state-run paper New Light of Myanmar accused Suu Kyi of tax evasion for spending her Nobel Prize money outside the country. The accusation followed the defeat of a US-sponsored United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Burma as a threat to international security; the resolution was defeated because of strong opposition from China, which has strong ties with the military junta (China later voted against the resolution, along with Russia and South Africa).
In November 2007, it was reported that Suu Kyi would meet her political allies National League for Democracy along with a government minister. The ruling junta made the official announcement on state TV and radio just hours after UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari ended his second visit to Burma. The NLD confirmed that it had received the invitation to hold talks with Suu Kyi. However, the process delivered few concrete results.
On 3 July 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon went to Burma to pressure the junta into releasing Suu Kyi and to institute democratic reform. However, on departing from Burma, Ban Ki-moon said he was “disappointed” with the visit after junta leader Than Shwe refused permission for him to visit Suu Kyi, citing her ongoing trial. Ban said he was “deeply disappointed that they have missed a very important opportunity.”
Periods under detention
20 July 1989: Placed under house arrest in Rangoon under martial law that allows for detention without charge or trial for three years.
10 July 1995: Released from house arrest.
23 September 2000: Placed under house arrest.
6 May 2002: Released after 19 months.
30 May 2003: Arrested following the Depayin massacre, she was held in secret detention for more than three months before being returned to house arrest.
25 May 2007: House arrest extended by one year despite a direct appeal from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to General Than Shwe.
24 October 2007: Reached 12 years under house arrest, solidarity protests held at 12 cities around the world.
27 May 2008: House arrest extended for another year, which is illegal under both international law and Burma’s own law.
11 August 2009: House arrest extended for 18 more months because of “violation” arising from the May 2009 trespass incident.
13 November 2010: Released from house arrest.
2007 anti-government protests
Main article: 2007 Burmese anti-government protests
Protests led by Buddhist monks began on 19 August 2007 following steep fuel price increases, and continued each day, despite the threat of a crackdown by the military.
On 22 September 2007, although still under house arrest, Suu Kyi made a brief public appearance at the gate of her residence in Yangon to accept the blessings of Buddhist monks who were marching in support of human rights. It was reported that she had been moved the following day to Insein Prison (where she had been detained in 2003) but meetings with UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari near her Rangoon home on 30 September and 2 October established that she remained under house arrest.
2009 trespass incident
U.S. Senator Jim Webb visiting Suu Kyi in 2009. Webb negotiated the release of John Yettaw, the man who trespassed in Suu Kyi’s home, resulting in her arrest and conviction with three years’ hard labour.
On 3 May 2009, an American man, identified as John Yettaw, swam across Inya Lake to her house uninvited and was arrested when he made his return trip three days later. He had attempted to make a similar trip two years earlier, but for unknown reasons was turned away. He later claimed at trial that he was motivated by a divine vision requiring him to notify her of an impending terrorist assassination attempt. On 13 May, Suu Kyi was arrested for violating the terms of her house arrest because the swimmer, who pleaded exhaustion, was allowed to stay in her house for two days before he attempted the swim back. Suu Kyi was later taken to Insein Prison, where she could have faced up to five years confinement for the intrusion. The trial of Suu Kyi and her two maids began on 18 May and a small number of protesters gathered outside. Diplomats and journalists were barred from attending the trial; however, on one occasion, several diplomats from Russia, Thailand and Singapore and journalists were allowed to meet Suu Kyi. The prosecution had originally planned to call 22 witnesses. It also accused John Yettaw of embarrassing the country. During the ongoing defence case, Suu Kyi said she was innocent. The defence was allowed to call only one witness (out of four), while the prosecution was permitted to call 14 witnesses. The court rejected two character witnesses, NLD members Tin Oo and Win Tin, and permitted the defence to call only a legal expert. According to one unconfirmed report, the junta was planning to, once again, place her in detention, this time in a military base outside the city. In a separate trial, Yettaw said he swam to Suu Kyi’s house to warn her that her life was “in danger”. The national police chief later confirmed that Yettaw was the “main culprit” in the case filed against Suu Kyi. According to aides, Suu Kyi spent her 64th birthday in jail sharing biryani rice and chocolate cake with her guards.
Her arrest and subsequent trial received worldwide condemnation by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Security Council, Western governments, South Africa, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member. The Burmese government strongly condemned the statement, as it created an “unsound tradition” and criticised Thailand for meddling in its internal affairs. The Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win was quoted in the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar as saying that the incident “was trumped up to intensify international pressure on Burma by internal and external anti-government elements who do not wish to see the positive changes in those countries’ policies toward Burma”. Ban responded to an international campaign by flying to Burma to negotiate, but Than Shwe rejected all of his requests.
On 11 August 2009 the trial concluded with Suu Kyi being sentenced to imprisonment for three years with hard labour. This sentence was commuted by the military rulers to further house arrest of 18 months. On 14 August, U.S. Senator Jim Webb visited Burma, visiting with junta leader Gen. Than Shwe and later with Suu Kyi. During the visit, Webb negotiated Yettaw’s release and deportation from Burma. Following the verdict of the trial, lawyers of Suu Kyi said they would appeal against the 18-month sentence. On 18 August, United States President Barack Obama asked the country’s military leadership to set free all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi. In her appeal, Aung San Suu Kyi had argued that the conviction was unwarranted. However, her appeal against the August sentence was rejected by a Burmese court on 2 October 2009. Although the court accepted the argument that the 1974 constitution, under which she had been charged, was null and void, it also said the provisions of the 1975 security law, under which she has been kept under house arrest, remained in force. The verdict effectively meant that she would be unable to participate in the elections scheduled to take place in 2010 – the first in Burma in two decades. Her lawyer stated that her legal team would pursue a new appeal within 60 days.
2009: International pressure for release and 2010 Burmese general election
It was announced prior to the Burmese general election that Aung San Suu Kyi may be released “so she can organize her party,” However, Suu Kyi was not allowed to run. On 1 October 2010 the government announced that she would be released on 13 November 2010.
U.S. President Barack Obama personally advocated the release of all political prisoners, especially Aung San Suu Kyi, during the US-ASEAN Summit of 2009.
The U.S. Government hoped that successful general elections would be an optimistic indicator of the Burmese government’s sincerity towards eventual democracy. The Hatoyama government which spent 2.82 billion yen in 2008, has promised more Japanese foreign aid to encourage Burma to release Aung San Suu Kyi in time for the elections; and to continue moving towards democracy and the rule of law.
In a personal letter to Suu Kyi, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown cautioned the Burmese government of the potential consequences of rigging elections as “condemning Burma to more years of diplomatic isolation and economic stagnation”.
Suu Kyi has met with many heads of state, and opened a dialog with the Minister of Labor Aung Kyi (not to be confused with Aung San Suu Kyi). She was allowed to meet with senior members of her NLD party at the State House, however these meetings took place under close supervision.
Aung San Suu Kyi addresses crowds at the NLD headquarters shortly after her release.
Aung San Suu Kyi meets with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Yangon (1 December 2011)
On the evening of 13 November 2010, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. This was the date her detention had been set to expire according to a court ruling in August 2009 and came six days after a widely criticised general election. She appeared in front of a crowd of her supporters, who rushed to her house in Rangoon when nearby barricades were removed by the security forces. Suu Kyi had been detained for 15 of the past 21 years. The government newspaper New Light of Myanmar reported the release positively, saying she had been granted a pardon after serving her sentence “in good conduct”. The New York Times suggested that the military government may have released Suu Kyi because it felt it was in a confident position to control her supporters after the election. The role that Suu Kyi will play in the future of democracy in Burma remains a subject of much debate.
Her son Kim Aris was granted a visa in November 2010 to see his mother shortly after her release, for the first time in 10 years. He visited again on 5 July 2011, to accompany her on a trip to Bagan, her first trip outside Yangon since 2003. Her son visited again on 8 August 2011, to accompany her on a trip to Pegu, her second trip.
Discussions were held between Suu Kyi and the Burmese government during 2011, which led to a number of official gestures to meet her demands. In October, around a tenth of Burma’s political prisoners were freed in an amnesty and trade unions were legalised.
In November 2011, following a meeting of its leaders, the NLD announced its intention to re-register as a political party in order to contend 48 by-elections necessitated by the promotion of parliamentarians to ministerial rank. Following the decision, Suu Kyi held a telephone conference with U.S. President Barack Obama, in which it was agreed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would make a visit to Burma, a move received with caution by Burma’s ally China. On 1 December 2011, Suu Kyi met with Hillary Clinton at the residence of the top-ranking US diplomat in Yangon.
On 21 December 2011, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra met Suu Kyi in Yangoon, marking Suu Kyi’s “first-ever meeting with the leader of a foreign country”.
On 5 January 2012, British Foreign Minister William Hague met Aung San Suu Kyi and his Burmese counterpart. This represented a significant visit for Suu Kyi and Burma. Suu Kyi studied in the UK and maintains many ties there, whilst Britain is Burma’s largest bilateral donor. During Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Europe, she visited the Swiss parliament, collected her 1991 Nobel Prize in Oslo and her honorary degree from Oxford University.
In December 2011, there was speculation that Suu Kyi would run in the 2012 national by-elections to fill vacant seats. On 18 January 2012, Suu Kyi formally registered to contest a Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house) seat in the Kawhmu Township constituency in special parliamentary elections to be held on 1 April 2012. The seat was previously held by Soe Tint, who vacated it after being appointed Construction Deputy Minister, in the 2010 election. She ran against Union Solidarity and Development Party candidate Soe Min, a retired army physician and native of Twante Township.
Aung San Suu Kyi (Center) gives a speech to the supporters during the 2012 by-election campaign at her constituency Kawhmu township, Myanmar on 22 March 2012.
On 3 March 2012, at a large campaign rally in Mandalay, Suu Kyi unexpectedly left after 15 minutes, because of exhaustion and airsickness.
In an official campaign speech broadcast on Burmese state television’s MRTV on 14 March 2012, Suu Kyi publicly campaigned for reform of the 2008 Constitution, removal of restrictive laws, more adequate protections for people’s democratic rights, and establishment of an independent judiciary. The speech was leaked online a day before it was broadcast. A paragraph in the speech, focusing on the Tatmadaw’s repression by means of law, was censored by authorities.
Suu Kyi has also called for international media to monitor the upcoming by-elections, while publicly pointing out irregularities in official voter lists, which include deceased individuals and exclude other eligible voters in the contested constituencies. On 21 March 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was quoted as saying “Fraud and rule violations are continuing and we can even say they are increasing.”
When asked whether she would assume a ministerial post if given the opportunity, she said the following:
I can tell you one thing – that under the present constitution, if you become a member of the government you have to vacate your seat in the national assembly. And I am not working so hard to get into parliament simply to vacate my seat.
On 26 March 2012, Suu Kyi suspended her nationwide campaign tour early, after a campaign rally in Myeik (Mergui), a coastal town in the south, citing health problems due to exhaustion and hot weather.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Suu Kyi and her staff at her home in Yangon, 2012
On 1 April 2012, the NLD announced that Suu Kyi had won the vote for a seat in Parliament. A news broadcast on state-run MRTV, reading the announcements of the Union Election Commission, confirmed her victory, as well as her party’s victory in 43 of the 45 contested seats, officially making Suu Kyi the Leader of the Opposition in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw.
Although she and other MP-elects were expected to take office on 23 April when the Hluttaws resume session, National League for Democracy MP-elects, including Suu Kyi, said they might not take their oaths because of its wording; in its present form, parliamentarians must vow to “safeguard” the constitution. In an address on Radio Free Asia, she said “We don’t mean we will not attend the parliament, we mean we will attend only after taking the oath… Changing that wording in the oath is also in conformity with the Constitution. I don’t expect there will be any difficulty in doing it.”
On 2 May 2012, National League for Democracy MP-elects, including Aung San Suu Kyi, took their oaths and took office, though the wording of the oath was not changed. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Suu Kyi and her colleagues decided they could do more by joining as lawmakers than maintaining their boycott on principle.” On 9 July 2012, she attended the Parliament for the first time as a lawmaker.
Response to violence against Rohingya Muslims and refugees
Some activists criticised Aung San Suu Kyi for her silence on the 2012 Rakhine State riots (later repeated during the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis), and her perceived indifference to the plight of the Rohingya, Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim minority. After receiving a peace prize, she told reporters she did not know if the Rohingya could be regarded as Burmese citizens. In an interview with the BBC’s Mishal Husain, Suu Kyi refused to condemn violence against the Rohingya and denied that Muslims in Myanmar have been subject to ethnic cleansing, insisting that the tensions were due to a “climate of fear” caused by “a worldwide perception that global Muslim power is very great.” According to Peter Popham, in the aftermath of the interview, she expressed anger at being interviewed by a Muslim. Husain had challenged Suu Kyi that almost all of the impact of violence was against the Rohingya, in response to Suu Kyi’s claim that was violence was happening on both sides, and Peter Popham described her position on the issue as one of purposeful ambiguity for political gain.
However, she said that she wanted to work towards reconciliation and she cannot take sides as violence has been committed by both sides. According to The Economist, her “halo has even slipped among foreign human-rights lobbyists, disappointed at her failure to make a clear stand on behalf of the Rohingya minority.” However, she has spoken out “against a ban on Rohingya families near the Bangladeshi border having more than two children.”
In a 2015 BBC News article, reporter Jonah Fisher suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence over the Rohingya issue is due to a need to obtain support from the majority Bamar ethnicity as she is in “the middle of a general election campaign”; In May 2015, the 14th Dalai Lama publicly called upon her to do more to help the Rohingya in Myanmar, claiming that he had previously urged her to address the plight of the Rohingya in private during two separate meetings and that she had resisted his urging. In May 2016, Suu Kyi asked the newly appointed United States Ambassador to Myanmar, Scot Marciel, not to refer to the Rohingya by their name. This followed Bamar protests at Marciel’s use of the word ‘Rohingya’.
In 2016, Suu Kyi was accused of failing to protect Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims during the 2016–17 persecution. State crime experts from Queen Mary University of London warned that Suu Kyi is “legitimising genocide” in Myanmar. Recently, she has drawn criticism for Myanmar’s response to the persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Rakhine State.
2015 general election
On 6 July 2012, Suu Kyi announced on the World Economic Forum’s website that she wanted to run for the presidency in Myanmar’s 2015 elections. The current Constitution, which came into effect in 2008, bars her from the presidency because she is the widow and mother of foreigners – provisions that appeared to be written specifically to prevent her from being eligible.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meeting Suu Kyi in London, 12 September 2016
The NLD won a sweeping victory in those elections, winning at least 255 seats in the House of Representatives and 135 seats in the House of Nationalities. In addition, Suu Kyi won re-election to the House of Representatives. Under the 2008 constitution, the NLD needed to win at least a two-thirds majority in both houses to ensure that its candidate would become president. Before the elections, Suu Kyi announced that even though she is constitutionally barred from the presidency, she would hold the real power in any NLD-led government. On 30 March 2016 she took over the roles of Foreign Affairs Minister, President’s Office Minister, Education Minister and Electric Power and Energy Minister in President Htin Kyaw’s government; later she relinquished the Ministries of Education and Electric Power and Energy. Moreover, President Htin Kyaw created a position called State Counsellor (de facto Prime Minister) for her. The position of State Counsellor was approved by the House of Nationalities on 1 April 2016 and the House of Representatives on 5 April 2016. The next day, her role as State Counsellor was established.
Foreign Minister and State Counsellor (2016–present)
As soon as she became foreign minister, she invited Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni in April and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in May and discussed to have good diplomatic relationships with these countries.
Initially, upon accepting the State Counsellor position, she granted amnesty to the students who were arrested for opposing the National Education Bill, and announced a creation of the commission on Rakhine state, which had a long record of persecution of Muslim Rohingya minority. However, soon Aung San Suu Kyi’s government did not manage with the ethnic conflicts in Shan and Kachin states, where thousands of refugees fled to China, and eventually the persecution of the Rohingya by the government fources escalated to the point that it is not uncommonly called a genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi, when interviewed, has denied the allegations of ethnic cleansing. She has also refused to grant citenzenship to the Rohingya, instead taking steps to issue ID cards for residency but no guarantess of citizenship.
Asked what democratic models Myanmar could look to, she said: “We have many, many lessons to learn from various places, not just the Asian countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia, and Indonesia.” She also cited “the eastern European countries, which made the transition from communist autocracy to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Latin American countries, which made the transition from military governments. “And we cannot of course forget South Africa, because although it wasn’t a military regime, it was certainly an authoritarian regime.” She added: “We wish to learn from everybody who has achieved a transition to democracy, and also … our great strong point is that, because we are so far behind everybody else, we can also learn which mistakes we should avoid.”
In a nod to the deep US political divide between Republicans led by Mitt Romney and the Democrats of Obama—then battling to win the 2012 Presidential election—she stressed with a smile, “Those of you who are familiar with American politics I’m sure understand the need for negotiated compromise.”
Aung San Suu Kyi has received vocal support from Western nations in Europe, Australia and North and South America, as well as India, Israel, Japan the Philippines and South Korea. In December 2007, the US House of Representatives voted unanimously 400–0 to award Aung San Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal; the Senate concurred on 25 April 2008. On 6 May 2008, President George W. Bush signed legislation awarding Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal. She is the first recipient in American history to receive the prize while imprisoned. More recently, there has been growing criticism of her detention by Burma’s neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, particularly from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. At one point Malaysia warned Burma that it faced expulsion from ASEAN as a result of the detention of Suu Kyi. Other nations including South Africa, Bangladesh and the Maldives also called for her release. The United Nations has urged the country to move towards inclusive national reconciliation, the restoration of democracy, and full respect for human rights. In December 2008, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the human rights situation in Burma and calling for Suu Kyi’s release—80 countries voting for the resolution, 25 against and 45 abstentions. Other nations, such as China and Russia, are less critical of the regime and prefer to cooperate only on economic matters.Indonesia has urged China to push Burma for reforms. However, Samak Sundaravej, former Prime Minister of Thailand, criticised the amount of support for Suu Kyi, saying that “Europe uses Aung San Suu Kyi as a tool. If it’s not related to Aung San Suu Kyi, you can have deeper discussions with Myanmar.”
Vietnam, however, did not support calls by other ASEAN member states for Myanmar to free Aung San Suu Kyi, state media reported Friday, 14 August 2009. The state-run Việt Nam News said Vietnam had no criticism of Myanmar’s decision 11 August 2009 to place Suu Kyi under house arrest for the next 18 months, effectively barring her from elections scheduled for 2010. “It is our view that the Aung San Suu Kyi trial is an internal affair of Myanmar”, Vietnamese government spokesman Le Dung stated on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In contrast with other ASEAN member states, Dung said Vietnam has always supported Myanmar and hopes it will continue to implement the “roadmap to democracy” outlined by its government.
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. The decision of the Nobel Committee mentions:
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Burma) for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.
…Suu Kyi’s struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression…
…In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to honour this woman for her unflagging efforts and to show its support for the many people throughout the world who are striving to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means.
— Oslo, 14 October 1991
In 1995 Aung San Suu Kyi delivered the keynote address at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.
Nobel Peace Prize winners (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Shirin Ebadi, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Mairead Corrigan, Rigoberta Menchú, Prof. Elie Wiesel, U.S. President Barack Obama, Betty Williams, Jody Williams and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter) called for the rulers of Burma to release Suu Kyi in order to “create the necessary conditions for a genuine dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all concerned parties and ethnic groups in order to achieve an inclusive national reconciliation with the direct support of the United Nations.” Some of the money she received as part of the award helps fund London-based charity Prospect Burma, which provides higher education grants to Burmese students.
On 16 June 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was finally able to deliver her Nobel acceptance speech (Nobel lecture) at Oslo’s City Hall, two decades after being awarded the peace prize.
Suu Kyi meeting Barack Obama at the White House in September 2012
In September 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi received in person the United States Congressional Gold Medal, which is the highest Congressional award. Although she was awarded this medal in 2008, at the time she was under house arrest, and was unable to receive the medal. Aung San Suu Kyi was greeted with bipartisan support at Congress, as part of a coast-to-coast tour in the United States. In addition, Aung San Suu Kyi met President Barack Obama at the White House. The experience was described by Aung San Suu Kyi as “one of the most moving days of my life.”As of 2014, she is listed as the 61st most powerful woman in the world by Forbes.
The Lady with French Ambassador for Human Rights Francois Zimeray
Freedom Now, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organisation, was retained in 2006 by a member of her family to help secure Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest. The organisation secured several opinions from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that her detention was in violation of international law; engaged in political advocacy such as spearheading a letter from 112 former presidents and Prime Ministers to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urging him to go to Burma to seek her release, which he did six weeks later; and published numerous opeds and spoke widely to the media about her ongoing detention. Its representation of her ended when she was released from house arrest on 13 November 2010.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been an honorary board member of International IDEA and ARTICLE 19 since her detention, and has received support from these organisations.
The Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Université catholique de Louvain, both located in Belgium, granted her the title of Doctor Honoris Causa.
In 2003, the Freedom Forum recognised Suu Kyi’s efforts to promote democracy peacefully with the Al Neuharth Free Spirit of the Year Award, in which she was presented over satellite because she was under house arrest. She was awarded one million dollars.
In June of each year, the U.S. Campaign for Burma organises hundreds of “Arrest Yourself” house parties around the world in support of Aung San Suu Kyi. At these parties, the organisers keep themselves under house arrest for 24 hours, invite their friends, and learn more about Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Freedom Campaign, a joint effort between the Human Rights Action Center and US Campaign for Burma, looks to raise worldwide attention to the struggles of Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma.
The Burma Campaign UK is a UK-based NGO (Non Governmental Organisation) that aims to raise awareness of Burma’s struggles and follow the guidelines established by the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi.
St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she studied, had a Burmese theme for their annual ball in support of her in 2006. The University later awarded her an honorary doctorate in civil law on 20 June 2012 during her visitation on her alma mater.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the official patron of The Rafto Human Rights House in Bergen, Norway. She received the Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize in 1990.
She was made an honorary free person of the City of Dublin, Ireland in November 1999, although a space had been left on the roll of signatures to symbolize her continued detention.
In November 2005 the human rights group Equality Now proposed Aung Sun Suu Kyi as a potential candidate, among other qualifying women, for the position of U.N. Secretary General. In the proposed list of qualified women Suu Kyi is recognised by Equality Now as the Prime Minister-Elect of Burma.
The UN’ special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, met Aung San Suu Kyi on 10 March 2008 before wrapping up his trip to the military-ruled country.
Aung San Suu Kyi was an honorary member of The Elders, a group of eminent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela. Her ongoing detention meant that she was unable to take an active role in the group, so The Elders placed an empty chair for her at their meetings. The Elders have consistently called for the release of all political prisoners in Burma. Upon her election to parliament, she stepped down from her post.
In 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was given an honorary doctorate from the University of Johannesburg.
In 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi was named the Guest Director of the 45th Brighton Festival.
She was part of the international jury of Human Rights Defenders and Personalities who helped to choose a universal Logo for Human Rights in 2011.
In June 2011, the BBC announced that Aung San Suu Kyi was to deliver the 2011 Reith Lectures. The BBC covertly recorded two lectures with Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, which were then smuggled out of the country and brought back to London. The lectures were broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service on 28 June 2011 and 5 July 2011.
In November 2011, Suu Kyi received Francois Zimeray, France’s Ambassador for Human Rights.
8 March 2012, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird presented Aung San Suu Kyi a certificate of honorary Canadian citizenship and an informal invitation to visit Canada.
In April 2012, British Prime Minister David Cameron became the first leader of a major world power to visit Aung San Suu Kyi and the first British prime minister to visit Burma since the 1950s. In his visit, Cameron invited San Suu Kyi to Britain where she would be able to visit her ‘beloved’ Oxford, an invitation which she later accepted. She visited Britain on 19 June 2012.
In May 2012, Suu Kyi received the inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent of the Human Rights Foundation.
29 May 2012 PM Manmohan Singh of India visited Aung San Suu Kyi. In his visit, PM invited Aung San Suu Kyi to India as well. She started her 6-day visit to India on 16 November 2012 where among the places she visited was her Alma Mater Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi.
Seoul National University in South Korea conferred an honorary doctorate degree to Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2013.
University of Bologna, Italy conferred an honorary doctorate degree in Philosophy to Aung San Suu Kyi in October 2013.
Monash University, The Australian National University, University of Sydney and University of Technology, Sydney conferred an honorary degree to Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2013.
Response to violence against Rohingya Muslims and refugees
Critics have called for Suu Kyi’s Nobel prize to be revoked, citing her silence over the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Some activists criticised Aung San Suu Kyi for her silence on the 2012 Rakhine State riots (later repeated during the 2015 Rohingya refugee crisis), and her perceived indifference to the plight of the Rohingya, Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim minority. In 2012, she told reporters she did not know if the Rohingya could be regarded as Burmese citizens. In a 2013 interview with the BBC’s Mishal Husain, Suu Kyi did not condemn violence against the Rohingya and denied that Muslims in Myanmar have been subject to ethnic cleansing, insisting that the tensions were due to a “climate of fear” caused by “a worldwide perception that global Muslim power is ‘very great’.” She did condemn “hate of any kind” in the interview. According to Peter Popham, in the aftermath of the interview, she expressed anger at being interviewed by a Muslim. Husain had challenged Suu Kyi that almost all of the impact of violence was against the Rohingya, in response to Suu Kyi’s claim that violence was happening on both sides, and Peter Popham described her position on the issue as one of purposeful ambiguity for political gain.
However, she said that she wanted to work towards reconciliation and she cannot take sides as violence has been committed by both sides. According to The Economist, her “halo has even slipped among foreign human-rights lobbyists, disappointed at her failure to make a clear stand on behalf of the Rohingya minority.” However, she has spoken out “against a ban on Rohingya families near the Bangladeshi border having more than two children.”
In a 2015 BBC News article, reporter Jonah Fisher suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence over the Rohingya issue is due to a need to obtain support from the majority Bamar ethnicity as she is in “the middle of a general election campaign”. In May 2015, the Dalai Lama publicly called upon her to do more to help the Rohingya in Myanmar, claiming that he had previously urged her to address the plight of the Rohingya in private during two separate meetings and that she had resisted his urging. In May 2016, Suu Kyi asked the newly appointed United States Ambassador to Myanmar, Scot Marciel, not to refer to the Rohingya by that name. This followed Bamar protests at Marciel’s use of the word “Rohingya”.
In 2016, Suu Kyi was accused of failing to protect Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims during the 2016–17 persecution. State crime experts from Queen Mary University of London warned that Suu Kyi is “legitimising genocide” in Myanmar. Despite continued persecution of the Rohingya well into 2017, Suu Kyi was “not even admitting, let alone trying to stop, the army’s well-documented campaign of rape, murder and destruction against Rohingya villages.” On 4 September 2017, Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, criticised Suu Kyi’s response to the “really grave” situation in Rakhine, saying: “The de facto leader needs to step in – that is what we would expect from any government, to protect everybody within their own jurisdiction.” The BBC reported that “Her comments came as the number of Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh reached 87,000, according to UN estimates”, adding that “her sentiments were echoed by Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai, who said she was waiting to hear from Ms Suu Kyi – who has not commented on the crisis since it erupted.” The next day George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, called on readers to sign a change.org petition to have the Nobel peace prize revoked, criticising her silence on the matter and asserting “whether out of prejudice or out of fear, she denies to others the freedoms she rightly claimed for herself. Her regime excludes – and in some cases seeks to silence – the very activists who helped to ensure her own rights were recognised.” The Nobel Foundation replied that there existed no provision for revoking a Nobel Prize. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a fellow peace prize holder, also criticised Suu Kyi’s silence: in an open letter published on social media, he said “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep … It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country.” On September 13 it was revealed that Suu Kyi would not be attending a UN General Assembly debate being held the following week to discuss the humanitarian crisis, with a Myanmar government spokesman stating “perhaps she has more pressing matters to deal with”.
In popular culture
The life of Suu Kyi and her husband Michael Aris is portrayed in Luc Besson’s 2011 film The Lady, in which they are played by Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis. Yeoh visited Suu Kyi in 2011 before the film’s release in November. In the John Boorman’s 1995 film Beyond Rangoon, Suu Kyi was played by Adelle Lutz.
Since 2009, Indian actress and Bharathanatyam dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar has been portraying as Suu Kyi in an one-act play titled The Lady of Burma directed by Prakash Belawadi, which also happens to be an eponymous play written by Richard Shannon.
U2’s Bono wrote the song “Walk On” in tribute to Suu Kyi, and publicized her plight during the U2 360° Tour, 2009-2011. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter composed a song titled “Aung San Suu Kyi”. It appears on his albums 1 + 1 (with pianist Herbie Hancock) and Footprints Live!
She had surgery for a gynecological condition in September 2003 at Asia Royal Hospital during her house arrest. She underwent minor foot surgery in December 2013 and eye surgery in April 2016. Her doctor said that she had no serious health problems but weighed only 48 kg, had low blood pressure and could become weak easily.
U2’s Bono wrote the song “Walk On” in tribute to Suu Kyi, and publicized her plight during the U2 360° Tour, 2009-2011.
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter composed a song titled “Aung San Suu Kyi”. It appears on his albums 1 + 1 (with pianist Herbie Hancock) and Footprints Live!
- Freedom from Fear (1991)
- Letters from Burma (1991)