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

Improving Canadian Democracy: From Theory to Practice

by Kennedy Stewart

via Kennedy Stewart.

The dominant democratic challenge of our time concerns reversing declining public participation in politics. Disappointing voter turnout levels are well documented in practically every newspaper and magazine article in which election results are discussed as well as a huge body of academic work. I focused a good deal of my university career on discovering how to improve voter turnout and, as a recently elected politician, now turn my attention to implementing these ideas.

Voter turnout is one of the most studied areas in political science with thousands of peer-reviewed papers and books dedicated to this topic over the last century. Many studies, including my own work (for example see Stewart 2006, 2007, 2008), adapt an economic approach focused on voting costs. In other words, authors theorize the easier it is for someone to vote, the more likely they are to go to the polls. These studies also suggest most voting costs are related to knowing when and how to vote as well as gathering information about candidates and issues. The more effort potential voters must themselves exert to gather this information, the less likely they are to vote. The more the state or election candidates offset information gathering costs for potential voters, the more likely it is people will head to the polls.

Recent ground-breaking work backs up these theories and points to possible practical solutions. In a statistical review of 83 academic studies, Benny Geys (2006) finds, all things being equal, voter turnout is higher in areas with stable and small populations and where elections are highly competitive and candidates spend large amounts of money. Compulsory voting, easier registration procedures, concurrent elections and proportional representation systems also increase voter participation. It is easy to envision how all these factors lower costs for potential voters and thus increase turnout.

Donald Green and Alan Gerber take this approach one step further in their landmark book Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout (2008). After using data from over 100 studies to identify how particular voter contact techniques correlate with increased voter turnout, the authors calculate the number of contacts needed to convert a non-voter into a voter as well as the cost-per-contact for each technique. Combining these findings, Green and Gerber report spending $28 on Election Day festivals, $29 on door-to-door canvassing, $38 on volunteer telephoning, $53 on unscripted commercial live calls, $67 on direct non-partisan mail, or $90 on tightly scripted commercial calls each produces one extra vote.

This work presents a special challenge for politicians concerned with increasing turnout. For example, in my riding of Burnaby-Douglas only 48,930 of the 84,911 registered voters cast ballots. At 58 per cent turnout, Burnaby-Douglas is 4 percentage points below the national average of 61 percent – meaning 2,865 more voters would have to participate for us to meet national standards. Even using the best technique of door-to-door canvassing, at $29 per extra vote I would need to spend an additional $85,000 to reach this total. While this is a daunting task, I am currently using funds from my office budget to carry out a local campaign called Neighbour-to-Neighbour which recruits local volunteers to contact their neighbours about voting in the next election with the hope that these conversations will offset voting costs and, ultimately, increase turnout in the 2015 federal election.

The best evidence suggests once someone votes the practice becomes habit forming. Similar investments in other ridings might begin to increase overall national turnout. Strategies do, however, need to pay attention to the demographics of non-voters. For example, the under-representation of younger or Native voters, a recurring problem in Canadian elections, requires special attention and very probably special tactics (LeDuc and Pammett, 2003)
Geys, Benny (2006) “Explaining voter turnout: A review of aggregate-level research” Electoral Studies 25(4): 637-663.

Green, Donald P. and Alan S. Gerber (2008) Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout (2nd Edition) Washington, DC, Brookings Institution Press.

LeDuc , Lawrence and Jon H. Pammett (2003) Explaining the Turnout Decline in Canadian Federal Elections: A new Survey of Non-Voters, Otttawa, Elections Canada.

Stewart, Kennedy (2006) “Designing Good Urban Governance Indicators: The Importance of Citizen Participation and Its Evaluation in Greater Vancouver” Cities 23(3): 196-204.

Stewart, Kennedy (2007) “Write the Rules and Win: Understanding Citizen Participation Game Dynamics” Public Administration Review 67(6): 1067–1076.

Stewart, Kennedy, Patricia MacIver and Stewart Young (2008) “Testing and Improving Voters’ Political Knowledge” Canadian Public Policy 34(4): 403-17.