Aung San Suu Kyi

via Htoo Tay Zar.

via Htoo Tay Zar.

Renowned for her political activism and personal sacrifice, Aung San Suu Kyi has emerged as a global icon for human rights and democracy (Diamond, 2012).  Aung San Suu Kyi’s upbringing fits the classic picture of the South Asian political elite: daughter of an eminent leader, and privileged by an international education, she was primed for a public life from early childhood.

Born in Rangoon in 1945, Aung San Suu Kyi was the third child of Daw Khin Kyi, a nurse in Rangoon General Hospital, and Burma Independence Army Commander, General Aung San. A prominent actor in the national fight for independence from Britain after World War II, Aung San was revered as a political hero (Diamond, 2012: 315). In 1947, six months before the country officially gained independence, he was assassinated. Following his death, Daw Khin Kyi grew increasingly active in public life, eventually becoming Burma’s ambassador to India in 1960. Aung San Suu Kyi accompanied her mother to New Delhi, where she attended high school.

In 1964, Suu Kyi moved to the United Kingdom to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University. There she met future husband, Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibetan and Himalayan studies. Suu Kyi soon moved to New York with the intention of conducting graduate research, but deferred her studies for a job at the United Nations secretariat. After two years in New York, she moved to Bhutan with Aris, and later back to England, where their two children were born. For the following two decades, Aung San Suu Kyi worked on a series of research projects, but focused primarily on raising her children.

In March 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Rangoon to care for her ailing mother. On 8 August 1988 a nationwide protest called for political democracy and transparency from the ruling regime. In response, the military junta, in power since 1962, imposed martial law, and thousands of protesters were killed.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career began amidst the 1988 political crisis. She wrote an open letter appealing for a consultative committee to facilitate the transition toward democracy. When the government was unresponsive, she gave her first public speech, her father’s portrait displayed behind her, to a crowd estimated at 500,000 in Rangoon. Traditional Burmese flowers woven carefully into her hair, and the face of a political hero behind her, she presented a stark contrast to the violent military leaders who’d controlled the country for over two decades.

In late 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi formed the National League for Democracy (NLD). She faced harassment and assassination attempts and was placed under house arrest in 1989. A year later, the NLD won a general election with 82% of votes, but the military refused to recognize the results.

In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi became the eighth female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first to receive it in captivity. The same year, her book, Freedom from Fear: And Other Writings appeared. For the next decade, she cycled in and out of house arrest and faced continuous harassment from the police and state-run media. She was given permission to leave her home freely only on the condition that she depart the country. Fearing that she would not be permitted to return, Aung San Suu Kyi refused, even when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. In 1999, Aris died, not having seen her for four years. Aung San Suu Kyi faced harsh criticism for choosing her country over her family, an act that challenged notions of proper womanhood .

In 2007, more nationwide protests increased global awareness of Burma’s political struggles. Numerous world leaders called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi but the ruling regime proved once again unresponsive. In 2010, she was officially barred from participating in future elections.

In November, 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi nevertheless announced her party’s candidacy for the 2012 election. In the lead-up to the vote, she gave her first public speech over state media, calling for removal of “restrictive laws,” and reform of the 2008 Constitution (BBC, 2012). On 2 April, Suu Kyi won a seat in the Burmese parliament, joining 42 other members of the NLD.

Since the 2012 election, Burma has undergone dramatic political change, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been increasingly active in domestic and international politics. After decades of activism and resistance, she now faces the challenge of transitioning from a human rights icon to an active politician. Like any politician, her decisions have not been without controversy but she remains globally renowned for her instrumental role in fighting for Burma’s civilian governance and demilitarization. Suu Kyi has also challenged traditional, masculinized conceptions of courage and resistance, and advanced global recognition of women as agents of political change (Palmer-Mehta, 2012: 315).
Works Cited

Burke, Jason (2012, Jun. 15). Aung San Suu Kyi: the woman who never sought to lead. The Guardian. Retrieved Oct. 20th, 2012 from

Diamond, L (2012, Oct. 1). Aung San Suu Kyi: From Politician to ‘Democracy Icon’ and Back Again. The Atlantic. Retrieved Oct. 6th, 2012 from

Palmer-Mehta, V (2012). Theorizing the Role of Courage in Resistance: A Feminist Rhetorical Analysis of Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘Freedom From Fear’ Speech. Communication, Culture & Critique, 5, 313-332.

Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi Makes Landmark Campaign Speech (2012, March 12). British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Retrieved Sept. 29th, 2012 from
Resources & Further Reading

Wintle, J. (2007). Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience. Skyhorse Publishing.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Aris, M., Havel, V., & Tutu, D. (2010). Freedom From Fear: And Other Writings (Revised Edition). London, England: Penguin Books

Aung San Suu Kyi (2010). Letters From Burma. London, England: Penguin Books

Palmer-Mehta, V (2012). Theorizing the Role of Courage in Resistance: A Feminist Rhetorical Analysis of Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘Freedom From Fear’ Speech. Communication, Culture & Critique, 5, 313-332.

Popham, P (2011). The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi. New York: The Experiment

Nobel Prize (n.d.), Aung San Suu Kyi: Biography. Retrieved Oct. 1st, 2012 from

Massar, Lindsey

Massar, Lindsey

Massar, Lindsey

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