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Thursday, August 13, 2020

Aung San Suu Kyi, “The Lady” from Burma

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Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese political leader nicknamed “The Lady”, celebrates her 75th birthday today. A long-time fighter for democracy who spent many years under house arrest, in 2016 became State Counselor, which essentially made her the de facto leader of her native country. She was born on June 19th, 1945 in Rangoon, shortly after Japanese troops evacuated what had been the capital of British Burma since 1885.

Her father Aung San, last Premier of the British Crown colony, in 1933 entered university and was very active as a student leader. In 1938 he quit his studies and got involved in anti-British and anti-imperialist politics. With generous help from Tokyo, in December 1941 he founded the Burma Independence Army (BIA).

During World War II it first fought together with Imperial Japan, switching sides in March 1945. A fervent communist and later a social democrat, he was assassinated in July 1947 by conservative political rivals. Although Aung San didn´t live to see full independence on January 4th, 1948, he is nowadays revered as the Father of the Nation.

Her mother Khin Kyi, a devout Buddhist educated at an American Baptist missionary school, was supposed to become a teacher. She changed her mind, was trained as a nurse instead and met her future husband at a hospital in the capital. They married in 1942 and had four children.

She served as first Minister for Social Welfare from 1953 to 1960 and then as Ambassador to India until 1967. Khin Kyi suffered a severe stroke in March 1988, which prompted her daughter to return to Burma after 28 years. Around 200, 000 people attended her funeral in January 1989.

Aung San Suu Kyi attended high school in New Delhi and went on to study philosophy, politics and economics in Oxford, receiving a B.A. in 1967. After also obtaining an M.A. degree in politics in 1968, she moved to New York City, staying with a friend of the family. For three years she worked at the United Nations secretariat, primarily on budget matters. At that time, the UN Secretary General was her compatriot U Thant.

Her English foster parents were Paul Henry Gore-Booth, former British Ambassador to Burma and High Commissioner in India and his wife. They introduced her to Michael Aris, a British expert on Bhutanese and Tibetan culture and history, as well as the private tutor of the children of the royal family of Bhutan. They were married in early 1972, and she accompanied him back to the isolated Himalayan kingdom for a year to serve as a research officer in Bhutan’s Foreign Ministry.

Alexander was born 1973 in London and Kim in 1977 in Oxford. In 1989, both were stripped of their Burmese citizenships by the ruling junta and had to wait until 2011 before they could see their mother again. Over the years, Alexander has accepted awards and given speeches on behalf of his mother.

Michael Aris, who died in March 1999 in Oxford of prostate cancer, was only allowed to visit his wife in Rangoon only twice. The last time was on Christmas 1995. Later visa applications were refused under the pretext that there were no medical facilities to provide adequate care. She didn´t travel to the United Kingdom to look after him out of fear that she would be unable to go home. Specially, as the regime expected her to refrain from all public activities while abroad.

After General Ne Win, in power since 1962, stepped down in July 1988, mass protests were violently suppressed the next month by the military government. Shortly afterwards, Aung San Suu Kyi began her political activities and in September took the position of secretary general at the newly-formed National League for Democracy (NLD). In February 1989, she is prohibited from standing for elections scheduled for May 1990.

In July 1989, shortly after Burma was officially renamed Myanmar, she was placed under house strict house arrest. The generals refuse to accept the NLD’s victory at the polls, where it wins 82% of the parliamentary seats. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from detention for the first time in July 1995. In the meantime, she had already turned into a legend that gained worldwide attention.  In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Only in recent years she gradually lost her nimbus due to severe problems related to the Rohingya Muslim minority. But that’s just the latest chapter in an amazingly complex story.

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