In the middle of Rangoon, there lies the beautiful Inya Lake which is more than a mile across. It is an artificial man made lake, a symbol of British colonial engineering ingenuity, that was created as a reservoir for water supply of the city in 1882. On the southern shore of the lake, on University Avenue, there is a large beautiful old red and white colonial house. Almost touching the tropical woods on its back, the house gives a mystic melancholy look. A frail but elegant sixty-four year old lady lives there with her two live-in aides. It is her parental house. However, she cannot enjoy much of the beauty of the lake nor she can walk on its bank. Most of the times she lives there as a prisoner, under house arrest, by the Burmese military junta with strict security.
During the last nineteen years, she has been in house arrest for total thirteen years. No outside visitors are allowed to visit her except her doctor. Even her husband who died of cancer in London ten years ago was not allowed to visit her after 1995. She has not seen her only two sons for last twenty years. Alone, she spends her days mainly by reading, writing, exercising, playing the old piano, chanting Buddhist sutras, practicing meditation but mainly waiting with patience and with a firm resolve. In keeping with her Buddhist ideal, she lives by doing whatever is right at 'the present moment?. The military junta would be happy to see her leave Burma, join her children in London, and never return to Burma again. But she cannot, for she has a mission to fulfill for the people of Burma. She is fighting a passive but resolute war for peace, justice, human rights and democracy in Burma. It is a war of the individual against the brute military force of the regime.
Who is this courageous lady sacrificing her whole life and her family for the future of Burma? What is her hope? What is her future? And more importantly wherefrom is she getting her inner strength, courage and optimism to go on hoping for a free Burma where others do not see any hope?
Her name is Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Ong San Soo Chee). People normally use the prefix Daw, an honorific title in Burmese in front of her name, to show her respect. One may also use the prefix Dr. because she holds a PhD degree in Philosophy from the University of London. She is the daughter of Aung San, Burma's independence hero, who is considered the father of modern Burma. Today, most would say that Suu Kyi is one of the world's most renowned freedom fighters and advocates of non-violence. But she was not exactly planning for this role. It was partly her destiny that pushed her to this position to stand up as the leader and the symbol of hope for millions of Burmese. In fact her Myanmar odyssey started only on March 31, 1988 when she received a sudden telephone call in her home in London from Burma informing that her mother suffered a severe heart attack. Without a second thought, she flew to Rangoon the next day. Hardly did she realize that she would probably never be able to come back.
It was her father Aung San who founded the modern Burmese army after the fall of Japan and united Burma?s different ethnic groups. Later he also successfully negotiated for Burma?s freedom from the British in 1947. But he did not live to see her freedom. He was brutally assassinated by a rival group in the same year when Suu Kyi was only two years old. For much of her childhood in Burma, she went to an English Catholic school. Later she studied in India (Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi) and in the United Kingdom. While studying at Oxford University, she met Michael Aris, a young British scholar on Tibetan culture, whom she married in 1972. They had two sons, Alexander and Kim. From her childhood, Suu Kyi grew with a great sense of duty for her country Burma. According to her husband, 'From her earliest childhood, Suu has been deeply preoccupied with the question of what she might do to help her people. She never for a minute forgot that she was the daughter of Burma's National hero.'
A great reader, she soon grew to be a scholar on her own account with great interests in literature, history, philosophy and political science. In 1982, she completed a biography of her father, whom she did not know, mainly from research materials in London. She also earned her PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in 1985. She also published an essay, 'My Country and People', a cultural history of Burma which shows her in depth knowledge and her mature outlook of Burmese history and culture. She along with her husband shared many trips and periods of residences in the Himalayas in Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. For some time she was a visiting scholar at the Kyto University in Japan. At the time of her departure to Burma, she was planning to write a doctoral thesis on Burmese literature under University of London. However, fate had other urgent designs for her.
By coincidence, there were mass demonstrations by the students for democracy on 8 August 1988, a day seen by many as auspicious 8-8-88 day. The protests were however violently suppressed. The leaderless demonstrators requested Suu Kyi to speak on behalf of the people. Remembering her father?s sacrifice for the country, she agreed, and on August 26, 1988, she addressed half a million people at a mass rally in front of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in the capital. In her speech she appealed very convincingly for a democratic government.
The Burmese people realized that they found their leader. Later the same month, a new party was formed, National League for Democracy (NLD), with Suu Kyi as general secretary. Since then, Suu Kyi travelled throughout the country and gave numerous speeches calling for justice, human rights and democracy. From the beginning, she insisted that the movement should be based on a non-violent struggle for human rights as the primary object. When required, she initiated Civil Disobedience against scores of unjustified laws of the junta. The military regime tried to respond to the uprising with brute force, killing up to 10,000 demonstrators, mostly students, women, and children. However, unable to maintain its grip on power, the regime finally was forced to call for a general election in 1990. Suu Kyi's NLD party won a landslide majority at the election and won 392 out of 485 seats, although Suu Kyi was not allowed to run in the election. However, the military junta, instead of handing over power, nullified the election results, and on July 20, 1989 put Suu Kyi under house arrest.
Since then, while the world watched helplessly, the military junta has been playing a game of hide and seeks for the last nineteen years. It has been extending her house arrest again and again on one pretext or another. Many a times, she was put in jail. The outside world responded by voicing support for her from all around the corners. In 1990 she was awarded the Rafto Prize and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Prize carried these words, '...In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to honor 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.' Accepting the prize, 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. In 1992 she was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru peace prize by the Government of India. On May 2008, President Bush signed legislation awarding her the Congressional Gold Medal. 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.
However, all seems to be of no avail. There are nations, such as China, Russia and others who are less critical of the regime and who prefer to cooperate for economic gains for convenience ignoring human conscience. Thus Burma is able to defy world conscience and continue her house arrest. It was already more than once that her life was threatened by mobs supported by the military junta. Last May, 2009, she was again arrested on another pretext, and she has since been on trial. Her fate is anybody?s guess now.
One wonders where Suu Kyi is getting her inner inspiration and motivation from. She seems inspired by both Eastern and Western sources. One immediate inspiration for her has been Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence. From Gandhi she learnt that for a doctrine of peace and reconciliation to be translated into practice, one absolute condition needed is fearlessness. Suu Kyi knows this more than anybody else. One of her essays 'Freedom from Fear' opens with the statement that "It is not power that corrupts, but it is fear." She also gets great strength and inspiration from leaders like Martin Luther King (Jr), Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama and others.
Suu Kyi practices Buddhism and its profound ideals have been great inspiration for her. When she speaks in public, she tries to justify human rights and democracy in Burma not as a Western ideal, but as what is based on codes, principles and customs found in Buddhist heritage. In one essay she wrote, 'The tenth duty of kings, non opposition to the will of the people (avirodha), tends to be singled out as a Buddhist endorsement of democracy, supported by well known stories from Jatakas.' Many Buddhist leaders inspire her. Thich Nhat Kanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist leader said, "I think we may fail in our attempt to do things, yet we may succeed in correct action when the action is authentically non violent, based on understanding, based on love." It is the process that counts. In one of her speeches in 1988, Suu Kyi made similar statement, 'Even though we don't know what will happen, we need to carry on as best as we can, without wavering, along the correct path. '.One's responsibility is to do the right thing.' A great sense of responsibility of doing what is right, prompted by a strong patriotism and general compassion for all, seems to have been the main motivating force for her. Doing what is right, that is 'right action', is also the doctrine of Buddhist middle way. Henry David Thoreau also said the same thing when he said, 'The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do any time which I think is right.' This is not just doing one?s duty for convenience or for tradition but doing what is right according to conscience fighting against tradition if necessary.
Suu Kyi also seems to fit the ideal of Emerson's famous 'The American Scholar' which speaks of 'education of the scholar by nature, by books, and by action'.The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearance.' Classics, both Eastern and Western, are her great sources of wisdom and inspiration. Even in the eye of the revolution, in 1990, Suu Kyi had time to write to her husband in London asking for copies of the Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and commenting on the fact that there was much more humor in the Thai and Cambodian depiction of the monkey-king Hanuman than the original Indian version.
Asia had given birth to many great women leaders. But it can be said without doubt that Suu Kyi will be regarded as one of the greatest heroic women not only of Asia but of the world. While presenting the Congressional Medal of honor to Suu Kyi, the USA has formally recognized her a status equal to other non-American recipients of the medal like Sir Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa. She is the only woman in the world, other than Mother Theresa, to receive the award. It is a matter of pride not only for Burma but for entire Asia. For the Burmese people, Suu Kyi represents their best and perhaps only hope that one day there will be an end to the country's military repression. Today, from the isolation of her house arrest Suu Kyi radiates a moral authority that exposes the illegitimacy of the Burmese regime and all of its pretensions to appear different from what it really is.
Burma is unusual in that there is no country in the world where the contrast is more sharply drawn between good and evil; we have a dark and repressive ruthless regime and a people that are so simple and peace loving. The question arises, is Suu Kyi with her great compassion and wisdom, going to achieve success in removing this great evil from Burma, and bring the country at par with rest of the world? One thing is clear that Suu Kyi is fighting a more ruthless regime that does not follow any rule of law, than what Gandhi did against the British Empire. Burma's success for human rights and Democracy basically depends on the outside world. Suu Kyi's message to the outside free world, and the only message from her, is very clear, 'Please use your freedom to free us.' I think we the free citizens of the world have a moral responsibility to do whatever we can to help our Burmese friends achieve freedom.