YANGON (Reuters) - After years of incarceration and isolation from the outside world, Aung San Suu Kyi is at the forefront of international efforts to champion nascent democratic reforms in Myanmar.
Since Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest a year ago, the changes in the former Burma have been breathtaking — she spent 15 of the last 21 years in detention and now plans to take a seat in parliament in what, at least until recently, was one of the most reclusive countries in the world.
The English housewife who became a world-famous opposition leader and Nobel prize-winning political prisoner was on the phone with U.S. President Barack Obama last week, persuading him to engage with Myanmar’s leaders.
On Monday, her National League for Democracy announced the 66-year-old will contest an upcoming by-election to parliament, the first time she has done so. She was not a candidate in the landslide NLD victory in 1990 that was voided by generals intent on maintaining power.
But the most dramatic development was Obama’s announcement that he would send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to visit Myanmar next month, signalling that the isolated country was preparing to come in from the cold. That announcement came after his conversation with Suu Kyi.
“She encouraged the president to make clear to Burma’s leaders that the U.S. will be willing to work with them if they are in fact demonstrating that they are willing to work with the world and her,” one U.S. official said.
“She advised the president that it is valuable and important for there to be direct lines of clear communication between the U.S. and the leadership in Burma. She strongly welcomed the prospect of a visit by Secretary Clinton for the purpose of increased dialogue,” the official said.
Suu Kyi has said she has been encouraged by the reforms in the Southeast Asian nation in recent months. In March, a civilian government took power although many of those in charge are retired generals who were part of the former junta.
Besides maintaining regular contact with Suu Kyi, the government has released about 280 political prisoners, cut taxes to help exporters and announced plans to provide micro loans for poor farmers and raise interest rates on savings accounts.
It has invited a delegation from the International Monetary Fund to provide advice on how to reform the currency regime.
It’s impossible to estimate how much Suu Kyi’s steely determination in confronting the generals has contributed to the change, but it has to be substantial.
Slightly built and soft-spoken, the daughter of late independence hero Aung San won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and played a crucial role in keeping world attention on Myanmar’s then military junta and its human rights record.
Known simply as “The Lady” by millions of her countrymen, she refuses to give up on the resource-rich country. “For me, real freedom is freedom from fear and unless you can live free from fear you cannot live a dignified human life,” she once said.
Suu Kyi spent much of her life abroad before returning to her family’s home on Yangon’s Inya Lake in April 1988 to care for her ailing mother just as resentment of military rule boiled over into pro-democracy protests across the country.
She first spoke to hundreds of thousands of supporters from the steps of the capital’s historic Shwedagon Pagoda on August 26 that year.
People seeing her for the first time were struck by the resemblance to her father, General Aung San, the country’s foremost national hero who led Myanmar to the brink of independence from British rule before his assassination in 1947.
“I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on,” Suu Kyi, who was two when her father died, told the huge crowd.
The military crushed the democracy uprising the following month. Thousands were killed and imprisoned but the generals promised an election.
In 1989, Suu Kyi broke a taboo by publicly attacking retired dictator Ne Win as the source of Myanmar’s ills.
This sealed her popular appeal, but also her fate. She was placed under house arrest on July 19, 1989, and remained there for six years. She passed the time with study, Buddhist meditation and playing piano.
Her message to the military had always been loud and clear: she wanted an open dialogue with the military and Myanmar’s ethnic rebel groups to try to end the political stalemate.
The generals refused to recognise her, questioning her patriotism by calling her by her married name, “Mrs Michael Aris,” and accusing her of being a traitor and a tool of Britain and the United States and their neo-colonial designs.
Suu Kyi’s struggle has drawn comparisons to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and India’s Mahatma Gandhi, freedom fighters from whom she has drawn inspiration over the years.
She has always refused to leave Myanmar, for fear of not being allowed back. Her husband, an Oxford academic, was denied a visa to visit her, even when he was dying of prostate cancer.
Aris died in March 1999 and Suu Kyi declined an offer from the junta to leave the country to attend his funeral. The story is now being played out in cinemas, with Malaysian action star Michelle Yeoh, one of Asia’s best known actresses, playing Suu Kyi in the film “The Lady.”
Suu Kyi was born in Yangon, then called Rangoon, on June 19, 1945. She was educated in Myanmar and India, where her mother was an ambassador, and later studied at Oxford.
In 1972, she married Aris and they raised two sons, Alexander and Kim, while moving between Bhutan, India and Japan before settling in Oxford.
Suu Kyi, who says arrests for her and other activists are an “occupational hazard” of the democracy movement, has always played down the hardships she has faced compared with those the Myanmar people have endured.
“What we have is perseverance. It is not patience, it is perseverance. We are prepared to persevere, whatever the obstacles,” she told Reuters.
Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan