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By Irwin Abrams

Published in THE NOBEL PRIZE ANNUAL 1991 (New York: IMG, 1992, pp. 77-85)

On a hot August day in 1988 the grounds at the foot of the great golden Schwedagon pagoda of Rangoon were crowded with thousands of Burmese who had come to a rally where Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced aung sahn soo chee), the daughter of the revered national hero, General Aung San, was to speak. A large picture of the general looked down from the stage, flanked by a flag of the resistance movement he had led which had brought Burma its independence in 1948, a few months after he had been assassinated on the orders of a political rival.

Now Burma was in the throes of political upheaval. A student-led protest movement against the military dictatorship which had ruled since 1962 was in full flood, despite the brutal methods the army was using to suppress it. On August 8, soldiers had sprayed with bullets a huge peaceful demonstration, resulting in a death toll far higher than in the Tiananmen Square massacre in China a year later.

The crowd at the pagoda on August 26 had heard that Suu Kyi had responded to this slaughter by calling upon the government to cease using force of arms against peaceful unarmed demonstrators and had proposed the establishment of a People's Consultative Committee to help resolve the crisis. Otherwise they knew little about her, only that she had been two years old when her father was slain, that she had lived most of the next four decades abroad, where she had married a British scholar, and that she had returned in April to nurse her mortally ill mother.

As the waiting throng watched the graceful little figure make her way to the stage, they cheered lustily, but many had come mainly out of curiosity, and the ovation was most likely for her father. When she began to speak in her fluent Burmese, however, she was listened to with rapt attention and given thunderous roars of applause throughout.

The present crisis was actually Burma's "second struggle for national independence," she said. "I could not as my father's daughter remain indifferent." What the people were demanding was the freedom and democracy for which he had fought. A multiparty government must be established, with free and fair elections to be held as soon as possible.

She asked the Burmese to work together with the many ethnic minorities in the country and called upon them not only for unity and discipline. but to "demonstrate clearly and distinctly their capacity to forgive."

She spoke frankly about personal criticisms: "It is true that I have lived abroad. It is also true that I am married to a foreigner. These facts have never interfered and will never interfere with or lessen my love and devotion for my country by any measure or degree."

With this speech, her first major political address, Suu Kyi became the leader of what had hitherto been a spontaneous popular movement. The people saw her as a reincarnation of her father. Even her name, which means "A bright collection of strange victories," encouraged their hopes.

Her Path to the Golden Pagoda

She only had dim memories of her father, but from her earliest years she had heard of his achievements in organizing the Burma Independence Army and leading Burma to freedom from Japanese occupation in World War II and from British colonial rule. She was told of his great love of his country and his hopes for its future, and she was inspired by what she learned of his selflessness, his courage, and his self-discipline.

Her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, was a remarkable woman herself, holding important government posts in the earliest years of Burma's independence, her home a meeting place for the country's leaders. She brought up her daughter and her two sons in strict accordance with Burma's best traditions and its Buddhist faith and her own high moral and social values.

When Suu Kyi was fifteen, her mother was appointed ambassador to India, where the young girl finished her schooling, continued her voracious reading, and became very interested in Gandhian principles and practice.

In 1964 she left New Delhi for Oxford, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics, taking her degree in 1967. At Oxford the diminutive beauty from Burma was a striking figure. Her close friend of those days, Ann Pasternak Slater, remembers how her "tight, trim lungi (the Burmese version of the sarong) and her upright carriage, her firm moral convictions and inherited social grace contrasted sharply" with the casual manners and ill-defined moral standards of the English students.

Slater recalls her curiosity about western ways. Despite Buddhist injunctions, she took one little sip of an alcoholic drink just to find out what it was like -- and didn't like it. And so that she could know the experience of other woman students, who returned from late dates after the gates were locked and had to climb over the garden wall of their dormitory to get in, she had a friend from India bring her back from a dinner date at midnight, so he could help her over the wall. Straker also remembers the characteristic determination with which Suu Kyi learned to bicycle in her lungi.

After Oxford she worked briefly as a research assistant at the University of London and then went to New York City, where she spent three years on the staff of the United Nations secretariat, working the last two on budgetary matters. She shared a small apartment near the U.N. with an old friend of her family who was also on the staff. They kept to their Burmese ways, spoke their native tongue, cooked Burmese food, and their American friends called their flat "a Burmese home in Manhattan." In her spare time Suu Kyi worked as a volunteer social worker in a New York hospital.

In 1971 she became engaged to Michael Aris, whom she had met in England in 1966 and who was now serving as private tutor to the royal family of Bhutan in the Himalayas. In the months before they were married in January 1972 in London, she wrote to him every day from New York. She was concerned that neither her family nor her fiance should think that her marriage in any way meant that she would no longer be as devoted to them and to her country. In her letters to him she constantly returned to the same appeal: "I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them." Michael always reassured her of his complete support. But there were forebodings he could not allay. "Sometimes," she wrote, "I am beset by fears that circumstances and national considerations might tear us apart just when we are so happy in each other that separation would be a torment."

They were to have sixteen happy years together before her fears were realized.

After Bhutan they returned to England, where Alexander was born in 1973. Michael started his doctorate at the University of London in Tibetan literature and then received a junior fellowship at Oxford, where their second son, Kim, was born. For Suu Kyi these were busy years at Oxford, taking care of the family in small quarters on modest means. Then she resumed her own academic career, teaching Burmese studies at Oxford and taking research assignments first in Japan, with Kim along, and then in India at the institute where Michael was a fellow and they could all be reunited. Her researches were centered upon Burmese history and culture and especially upon the life of her father.

During this period there were regular family visits with grandmother Daw Khin Kyi in Rangoon, who was happy to arrange for both boys to follow the traditional Burmese ritual of serving briefly as novices in a monastery. Suu Kyi found political developments in Burma very discouraging. The country was under the repressive rule of General Ne Win, whose policies of military socialism were turning the former "rice bowl of Asia" with its happy people and exceptional mineral resources into an impoverished dispirited land. Yet she felt no call to take any political role. Both Suu Kyi and Michael thought the time for Burma would come later, after the children were grown and after she had finished her doctoral thesis on Burmese literature at the University of London.

As Michael recently remarked, however, "The finger of destiny does not wait upon convenience." He has told how on a quiet evening at Oxford at the end of March in 1988, after the boys were in bed, Suu Kyi answered the phone to hear that her mother had suffered a severe stroke. As she immediately set about packing her bags for the next flight to Rangoon, he had "a premonition that our lives would change forever."

Aung San Suu Kyi's Campaign

Suu Kyi's campaign for democracy and human rights was to last less than eleven months. After her speech at the pagoda the demonstrations continued despite the murderous force used by the soldiers. Finally on September 18, the generals set up a so-called State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), saying they would turn over power after fair and free elections. The promise was made both to quell the disturbances and for foreign notice, apparently with the expectation that so many parties would elect representatives to the national assembly -- soon over 200 were organized -- that the military junta would retain power. Moreover, political gatherings of more than four persons were forbidden.

Suu Kyi now became the leader of the party named the National League of Democracy. Defying the ban, she embarked upon a tireless speechmaking tour throughout the country, addressing 1,000 meetings. Large crowds turned out to hear her despite constant harassment by soldiers. In a letter to Michael in Oxford she told of one gruelling trip: "travelling by bullock cart and small boats in the blazing sun -- alas, your Suu is getting weatherbeaten, none of that pampered elegance left as she tramps the countryside spattered with mud, straggly-haired, breathing in dust and pouring with sweat!"

In one town as she was walking down the street with her associates, soldiers lined up in front of her with their rifles at the ready, threatening to shoot if she advanced any further. She calmly walked on and at the last moment a higher officer countermanded the order to fire.

Her campaign not only unified the opposition movement, but introduced a new emphasis upon human rights as the democratic goal and nonviolence as the means to attain it. Both, she explained, were closely related to Buddhist tenets. She also brought the SLORC's violation of human rights to the attention of foreign governments and urged action in the U.N., pointing out that "the indiscriminnate killing of unarmed demonstrators including school children, students and Buddhist monks is a legitimate subject for international condemnation."

Her protests to the authorities against these excesses and her requests for a dialogue were all to no avail. Instead, they began a campaign of vilification, calling her a communist or a tool of the CIA and attacking her character. She responded by identifying the real dictator as General Ne Win, supposedly retired from power, but as everyone knew but feared to say, actually giving the orders to the SLORC. He was the one who had ruined the country, she said, and while her father had always declared that the army should stay out of politics, General Ne Win had alienated the army from the people.

Fearful of Suu Kyi's growing popularity, the SLORC placed her under "restricted residence," isolating her from any contact with the outside world, and allowing access only to immediate family members. Michael immediately flew to Rangoon, where he found Suu Kyi on the third day of a hunger strike, which she had told the authorities she would continue until they put her in jail just as they had done with her political supporters. On the twelfth day on the assurance that her associates would not be maltreated in prison, she agreed to end her fast and was given medical treatment to restore her to health.

In September, Michael and the boys had to return to England, but at Christmas-time Michael was allowed a fortnight visit. He found Suu Kyi dealing with her confinement by following a strict routine of exercising, studying, memorizing Buddhist sutras, improving her French and Japanese, and playing Bach on the piano. Despite the grim circumstances, this was a happy time together. Little did Michael realize that it was to be the last family visit permitted by the generals, who in July 1990 even cut off all contact by post. Obviously they were trying to break her spirit by intensifying the isolation, all the while telling her that she was free to leave Burma if she never returned.

The generals are as unlikely to succeed in breaking the indomitable spirit of Suu Kyi as they were in attempting to reduce the election chances of the National League for Democracy by silencing its leader. The election in May 1990 resulted in a landslide victory for the NLD, which won more than 80% of the seats in the national assembly, even though 93 parties entered candidates. Suu Kyi had not been allowed to run in the election herself, but the results clearly showed that the whole country had voted for her. The SLORC ignored the election results, jailed NLD elected representatives, and went on ruling the country. But any claim of legitimacy the generals might have had was gone.

Suu Kyi's campaign for democracy had already been reported in the world press, and her detention and the annulled election drew increasing international attention to the situation in Burma, (now named Myanmar). In reporting her hunger strike the London Times called her "Burma's Gandhi." Amnesty International gave her case world publicity and continued to report evidences of SLORC's human rights violations including the use of torture. The Secretary General of the U.N. repeatedly called for her release, and the United States, Japan and member countries of the European Community called for transfer of power to the elected representatives, banned arms sales to the government, and discontinued aid programs.

In 1991 Suu Kyi was granted human rights awards, including the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought, and in October the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that she had won the peace prize "for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights," calling this struggle "one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades."

Since Suu Kyi's voice would not be heard from Oslo, Michael edited a collection of her writings which was published worldwide by the Penguin Press on the eve of the award ceremony. Freedom from Fear gives us a memorable picture of Suu Kyi, her words, her deeds, her personality. It has been liberally drawn upon for this article.

In the title essay she writes, "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it." While it is not easy for a people living under the iron rule of dictatorship to free themselves "from the enervating miasma of fear ... even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of man."

"The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit," she writes. "It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear."

On the day of the award presentation in Oslo, Suu Kyi was thousands of miles away in lonely detention, heavily guarded by soldiers, but her presence was deeply felt in the spacious city hall where the ceremony was held. Her sons, who had come with their father, accepted the scroll and the medallion for her in front of a vivid enlarged color photograph of a smiling Suu Kyi, taken when she was still free. Alexander, now a trim and tall young man of eighteen, delivered the acceptance speech in a voice loud and clear, quoting her words about her Buddhist and democratic faith. In the musical selections a Burmese musician played some of her favorite music. Outside the hall, her photograph seemed to be everywhere, carried by the marchers in the torchlight procession after the ceremony, printed in every newspaper, displayed in bookstore windows featuring both English and Norwegian editions of her new book.

In his presentation speech, Nobel Committee Chairman Francis Sejersted spoke of how "in the good fight for peace and reconciliation, we are dependent on persons who set examples, persons who can symbolize what we are seeking and mobilize the best in us. Aung San Suu Kyi is just such a person. ... Knowing she is there gives us confidence and faith in the power of good."

President Vaçlav Havel of the Czech Republic, who had been one of her many nominators for the prize, called her "an outstanding example of the power of the powerless." He said, "Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be silenced because she speaks the truth and because her words reflect basic Burmese and universal concepts. ... She speaks for all of us who search for justice."

As the crowd left the city hall ceremony, many of them wearing "Free Suu" lapel buttons, they wondered what indeed were her prospects for the future? Her Nobel prize had already strengthened the international pressure on the SLORC to release her and to introduce democratic reforms, and a Swedish resolution which had languished for a year had now been passed at the U.N. In Oslo the past peace laureates who had come for the 90th anniversary celebration of the prize added their moral weight by publishing a joint statement in her behalf. As of this writing, however, the military junta has been unbending.

Twenty years ago in writing to her fiance about her fears of the torment of separation, Suu Kyi said, "If we love and cherish each other as much as we can while we can, I am sure love and compassion will triumph in the end." She has the same conviction that ultimately right will prevail in her country. Every peace laureate is expected to present a Nobel lecture in Oslo. If we can share her faith, we will look forward to the day when Suu Kyi herself, fearless and free, will speak to the world from this rostrum.