Aung San Suu Kyi

Background

Burma is declared independent from British colonial rule on 4 January 1948. Burma's many tribal minorities are resistant to centralised control. Instability sets in almost immediately. In 1962 the Burmese Government is overthrown in a military coup d'├ętat led by General Ne Win. The coup leaders attempt to create a single-party socialist state but end up ruining the country's economy. Popular unrest against the military regime grows, coming to a head in 1987-88 when rioting breaks out. The regime responds with force. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 19 June 1945 in Rangoon (now Yangon). Her father, Aung San, is Burma's most respected independence hero. Her mother, Ma Khin Kyi, is a senior nurse at Rangoon general hospital and a future diplomat.

Suu Kyi's father is assassinated in Rangoon on 19 July 1947. In 1960, Suu Kyi moves to New Delhi after her mother is appointed Burma's ambassador to India. Suu Kyi spends most of the next 28 years outside of Burma.

During the 1960s, Suu Kyi studies philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Oxford in England. It is during this time that she meets her future husband, the historian Michael Aris. The couple marry on 1 January 1972. They have two sons, Alexander and Kim.

Suu Kyi and Aris establish a family base at Oxford, but also travel widely throughout Asia for work and study.

1988 - Suu Kyi is back in Oxford when she receives a telephone call from Burma on 31 March. Her mother has suffered a severe stroke. Suu Kyi flies to Rangoon the next day.

Meanwhile, student-led protests against Burma's military regime break out in Rangoon in March and June. The protests are triggered by a currency devaluation that wipes out the value of most people's savings without warning or compensation.

The movement for democracy gains momentum during the so-called Democracy Summer or Rangoon Spring, culminating in a mass uprising on 8 August that spreads from Rangoon across the entire country. The uprising is squashed when the military fires on the demonstrators, killing thousands. (Sources estimate between 3,000 and 10,000 die). The bloodshed comes to an end on 12 August when it is announced that the leader of the military regime has resigned.

As the daughter of Burma's most famous independence hero, Suu Kyi is drawn into the democracy movement. On 15 August she sends an open letter to the regime asking for the formation of an independent People's Consultative Committee to prepare for multiparty elections.

On 26 August she addresses a rally of 500,000 gathered in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. She calls on the military regime to cease using force and reiterates her proposal for the establishment of a consultative committee to help resolve the crisis. However, on 18 September, following a bloody power struggle within the government, it is announced that there has been a military coup.

The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a junta composed of 21 senior military officers now rules Burma under martial law.

SLORC claims it will turn over power after free and fair elections, but political gatherings of more than four persons are banned and force is again used to suppress demonstrators.

The opposition is formally organised into the National League for Democracy (NLD) on 24 September. Suu Kyi is made the party leader. In defiance of the ban on political gatherings, she speaks at over 100 public meetings during extensive campaign tours across the country. She advocates nonviolent protest and urges the United Nations (UN) to intervene.

Suu Kyi's mother dies on 27 December. At the funeral held on 2 January 1989, Suu Kyi vows to follow the example of her mother and father and selflessly serve the people of Burma without fear of the personal cost.

1989 - Suu Kyi continues her campaign despite intimidation by the SLORC junta. On 20 July, she is placed under house arrest in Rangoon for "endangering the state". She lives alone and is only allowed visits from members of her immediate family. Under the laws of the junta, she can be held without charge or trial for three years. The period for detention without charge or trial is extended to five years in 1991, then to six years in 1994.

All told, Suu Kyi spends 15 of the next 21 years in detention.

Meanwhile, the name of the country is changed by the SLORC junta from Burma to the Union of Myanmar. The name of the capital is changed from Rangoon to Yangon.

1990 - A multiparty general election is held on 27 May. The NLD outpolls the junta's preferred party by almost three votes to one and wins 80% of the seats. However, the junta ignores the results, refuses to allow the parliament to convene, and jails the NLD's elected candidates.

The junta says it cannot accept the establishment of a civilian government based on an interim constitution and that it will not hand over power until a new constitution is passed by a national convention.

The junta revokes Suu Kyi's right to visits from her immediate family. All outside contact is forbidden, including by post.

Suu Kyi's plight comes to world attention. She is described as Burma's Gandhi. The secretary-general of the UN repeatedly calls for her release, and governments around the world urge SLORC to respect the election results.

1991 - On 14 October, Suu Kyi is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights".

"She became the leader of a democratic opposition which employs nonviolent means to resist a regime characterised by brutality," the Nobel Committee says.

"She also emphasises the need for conciliation between the sharply divided regions and ethnic groups in her country.

"Suu Kyi's struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression."

At the award presentation ceremony held in Oslo on 10 December, the chairman of the Nobel Committee says, "In the good fight for peace and reconciliation, we are dependent on persons who set examples, persons who can symbolise what we are seeking and mobilise the best in us. Aung San Suu Kyi is just such a person. ...

"We ordinary people, I believe, feel that with her courage and her high ideals, Aung San Suu Kyi brings out something of the best in us. We feel we need precisely her sort of person in order to retain our faith in the future. That is what gives her such power as a symbol, and that is why any ill-treatment of her feels like a violation of what we have most at heart."

Full copy of the presentation speech.

Suu Kyi's sons accept the award on her behalf.

The Nobel Prize is the most prestigious of the many awards Suu Kyi receives. She is presented with the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990. The United States awards her the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008. The medal is the highest civilian honour conferred by the US. In 2012 she is presented with Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award, the organisation's highest honour.

1992 - In April the junta announces that it will organise a national convention to draft a new constitution. The first session of the national constitutional convention is held on 9 January 1993. Little progress is made over the coming years. The NLD walks out of the convention in November 1995, arguing that the proceedings are undemocratic and that the draft constitution would entrench military control of the government. The convention is completely suspended on 31 March 1996.

1995 - Suu Kyi is freed from house arrest on 10 July but is not allowed to travel outside Rangoon. She continues her calls for dialogue and a peaceful transition to a democratic government, using weekend talks to crowds outside her house to convey her message to the Burmese people and the world.

Over Christmas, Suu Kyi's husband, Michael Aris, travels to Burma to be with his wife. It is the last time the couple meet.

1996 - The junta cracks down on the NLD. Over 1,000 NLD members and supporters are arrested or detained between May and November. Suu Kyi's Rangoon residence is blockaded by the junta and she is prevented from giving her weekend talks. On 9 November a 200-strong mob thought to be members of the government-sponsored Union Solidarity and Development Association attack an NLD motorcade carrying Suu Kyi as it travels in broad daylight through Rangoon. Neither the police nor army officers intervene and no one is ever charged.

Large-scale student demonstrations against the junta break out in October. They continue until the end of the year.

1997 - The international community begins to act in response to the ongoing repression. The European Union introduces limited sanctions against the junta. Tougher sanctions are implemented by the US in May.

However, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) takes a conciliatory line, admitting Burma as a full member on 23 July.

The junta, meanwhile, undergoes a shakeup. On 15 November SLORC dissolves itself, reforming as the 19-member State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

1998 - Suu Kyi makes several attempts to leave Rangoon to meet with NLD officials but is stopped each time by the military at the city's border and forced back to her home. During one standoff beginning on 23 July, she remains by her car for six days.

She again attempts to leave Rangoon on 12 August and is again stopped. Once more she refuses to leave her car, camping by the stationary vehicle for 13 days.

1999 - Suu Kyi's husband Michael is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. The junta refuses to grant him a visa to visit his wife before he dies but says it will allow Suu Kyi to leave the country to visit him. She declines, fearing she will not be allowed back if she leaves. Her husband dies on 27 March.

The junta allows Suu Kyi's sons to travel to Burma to visit her in December.

2000 - Suu Kyi is stopped by police when she attempts to travel to the countryside on 24 August. This standoff, during which she and her supporters again remain camped by the roadside, lasts until 2 September when she is forced to return to the capital.

On 21 September she attempts to travel to the northern city of Mandalay by train but is not permitted to board. Suu Kyi is placed under house arrest and 92 members of the NLD are detained.

Talks between Suu Kyi and the junta commence in October. The junta is said to be prepared to allow a return to democracy provided there is a transitional power-sharing arrangement between themselves and the NLD. They also want a guarantee of immunity from prosecution for past human rights abuses, and a commitment from Suu Kyi that she will give up any personal political ambition.

2002 - Suu Kyi is released from her 19-month house arrest on 6 May. The restrictions on her political activity are lifted. She is free to travel around the country and to lead the NLD, although her activities are closely monitored by the junta.

Suu Kyi undertakes extensive tours of the country's regional areas. She is enthusiastically received by the people but regularly subjected to harassment from the authorities and the government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

2003 - On 27 May, to mark the 13th anniversary of the NLD's landslide victory in the still unrecognised general election, Suu Kyi makes her strongest statement against the junta since her release from house arrest in May 2002.

"The NLD must stand up firmly to achieve the results of the elections of 1990," she says. "To ignore the result of the 1990 elections is to have total disrespect for the people and is also an insult to the people."

The junta is said to be furious with the statement and worried by Suu Kyi's growing popularity.

Harassment of Suu Kyi by members of the USDA and intimidation of her supporters begins to rise, culminating in a deadly confrontation on the evening of 30 May, as Suu Kyi draws to the end of a month-long tour of the north.

At least four and possibly more than 80 people are killed when a pro-junta crowd stops Suu Kyi's motorcade near the village of Depayin, about 100 km northwest of Mandalay.

Suu Kyi is taken into "protective custody" by security forces and returned to Rangoon, where she is held incommunicado, reportedly in a two-room hut at the Insein Prison on the outskirts of the capital.

Nineteen other leaders of the NLD are also held in "protective custody". NLD offices throughout Burma are closed and university campuses and secondary schools are shut for two weeks.

In response to Suu Kyi's arrest, the US, the European Union, Britain and Canada extend the sanctions against the junta.

China, however, advises nonintervention and in September loans the Burmese Government US$200 million to buy Chinese goods, including military equipment.

Japan, Burma's leading foreign aid donor, threatens to review its aid program if the junta does not release Suu Kyi "immediately" and allow democratic reforms. On 25 June financial aid for new development projects is suspended.

ASEAN issues an unprecedented joint statement saying it looks forward to the early lifting of restrictions placed on Suu Kyi and the NLD, but remains opposed to the use of economic and political sanctions against the junta.

Suu Kyi is transferred from the Insein Prison to a military guesthouse outside Rangoon at the start of July. In September she is allowed to return to her home. She remains under house arrest and incommunicado.

Suu Kyi's house arrest is extended for a year in November 2004. It is extended for six months in November 2005, for a further year in May 2006, for yet another year in May 2007, and for another year in May 2008.

In 2009, Suu Kyi is placed on trial for breaching the terms of her detention after a US citizen, John William Yettaw, is arrested in Rangoon after reportedly swimming to Suu Kyi's lakeside house and staying there for two days. The court delivers its verdict on 11 August 2009. Suu Kyi is found guilty as charged and sentenced to a further 18 months of house arrest.

2004 - The junta announces that the constitutional convention will be reconvened on 17 May. All the delegates to the previous convention, including those from the NLD, are invited to attend. The NLD announces it is prepared to participate in the convention if Suu Kyi and party Deputy Chairman Tin Oo are freed, and provided all NLD offices across the country are allowed to reopen. When the junta refuses to accept the demands, the NLD declares it will boycott the proceedings.

2007 - In August protesters begin to take to Burma's streets after the junta raises the price of cooking gas by 500% and doubles the cost of transport fuels. The protest movement gains momentum and comes to be know as the Saffron Revolution when Buddhist monks join in then take the lead.

Demonstrations continue for six weeks, growing in size and spreading throughout the country. They are the largest protests seen in Burma since the Democracy Summer of 1988.

On 22 September the monks symbolically link Suu Kyi to the movement when hundreds of them are allowed to march past her house in Rangoon. A weeping Suu Kyi appears briefly to greet them as they pass. It is her first public appearance in four years. Two days later as many as 100,000 protesters led by thousands of monks march in Rangoon.

The junta cracks down on 26 September. At least 15 people are killed when the military resorts to violence to disperse the crowds, using tear gas and truncheons then opening fire with rubber bullets and live rounds. Opposition groups claim that hundreds are killed. Close to 3,000 people are arrested, including hundreds of monks. The United Nations later estimates that at least 31 were killed in the crackdown.

Meanwhile, the constitutional convention concludes on 3 September with the release of a set of guidelines that entrench the power of the military and bar Suu Kyi from holding political office. A junta-appointed panel begins to draft a constitution in December.

2008 - In a surprise move, the junta announces on 9 February that a referendum on the new constitution will be held in May, to be followed by a multiparty, democratic election in 2010.

The constitution is finalised on 19 February. It gives ultimate power to the army commander-in-chief and allocates 25% of the seats in parliament to unelected military appointees.

The referendum is held on 10 May. According to the junta, 92% of eligible voters approve the document.

The NLD rejects the result, saying the junta has used "coercion, intimidation, deception, misinformation and undue influence, abuse of power to get the affirmative vote".

2010 - Burma now prepares for its first national election since 1990. While the NLD announces it will boycott the poll, the junta registers the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to represent its interests. Members of the junta begin to resign from the military so they can contest the elections as civilians.

The election is held on 7 November. The junta claims a landslide victory for the USDP.

Suu Kyi is finally released from house arrest six days later, on 13 November. Thousands of Burmese take to the streets to celebrate her return.

"With the support of the people, I will continue to work towards national reconciliation," she tells a crowd outside the NLD headquarters in Rangoon.

"I want to hear the voice of the people. After that we will decide what we want to do. I want to work with all democratic forces. I believe in human rights and I believe in the rule of law."

2011 - Burma's new parliament sits for the first time on 1 February. The pace of change under the new government surprises many observers. Restrictions on the media are eased. Labour unions are granted the right to strike. Electoral laws are loosened, allowing Suu Kyi to run for office. An unpopular, Chinese-sponsored project to dam the Irrawaddy River is shelved. A human rights commission is established.

In October, 6,359 prisoners are granted amnesty and released from jails across the country, including about 200 political prisoners. Further releases of political prisoners follow.

In November the NLD announces it will participate in future elections.

Burma begins to be accepted back into the international community. Sanctions are eased. British Prime Minister David Cameron visits Burma on 13 April 2012. US President Barack Obama visits on 19 November 2012. He is the first serving US president to visit the country.

2012 - Forty-three NLD representatives are elected to the parliament at by-elections held on 1 April. Suu Kyi wins a seat on the southern outskirts of Rangoon.

At the end of May, Suu Kyi travels to Thailand to address the World Economic Forum on East Asia. It is the first time she has left Burma in 24 years. Many other trips overseas follow. Suu Kyi is feted wherever she travels, by world leaders and ordinary people alike.

Meanwhile, the Rohingya Muslim community in Rakhine State in western Burma come under sustained and violent anti-Muslim attacks by Burmese Buddhists living in the region. The Rohingya number about 1.1 million. They are descended from immigrants from Bangladesh but despite having lived in Burma for centuries are denied citizenship and other basic rights. The attacks cause up to 140,000 to seek refuge in impoverished camps or flee Burma completely.

2013 - The NLD holds its first-ever party congress at the start of March. Suu Kyi is reelected party leader.

In June Suu Kyi admits she wants to become Burma's president. However, the Burmese constitution bars candidates from running for the top post if, like Suu Kyi, their children are foreign nationals.

Suu Kyi calls for constitutional reform. "Unless this constitution is amended ... we will have to take it that the present administration is not interested in taking reform further forward," she says in October

"It's gone as far as it is going to go without amendments to the constitution and we are still very, very far away from a genuine democratic form of government."

2014 - A parliamentary committee set up to review the constitution recommends that no change be made to the articles preventing Suu Kyi from running for president. The committee, which is controlled by the government, also recommends that 25% of the seats in parliament continue to be reserved for the military and that changes to the constitution continue to require at least a 75% majority vote by parliamentarians. Under this arrangement the military, with its 25% block of seats, has the power to veto any constitutional change.

In November, Suu Kyi tells reporters that reform has stalled in Burma. "We do think there have been times when the United States Government has been overly optimistic about the reform process," she says.

"If they really study the situation in this country they would know that this reform process started stalling early last year. In fact, I would like to challenge those who talk so much about the reform process, what significant reform steps have been taken within the last 24 months?"

2015 - The 2015 general election is held on 8 November. As the votes are tallied it becomes clear that the NLD has won in a landslide, taking an absolute majority of seats in both houses of parliament and placing it in a position where it can govern in its own right. The absolute majority also allows the NLD to hand-pick a new president.

2016 - The NLD officially takes power on 1 April. Suu Kyi is minister of foreign affairs and minister in the president's office. She remains leader of the NLD. She also takes the position of "state counsellor", a specially created role that gives her general oversight of the government and potentially more power than the president.

The military remains in control of the state's entire security apparatus. It holds the defence, home affairs and border affairs ministries. It retains a veto over constitutional change and it has the right to place the country under martial law at any time.

Suu Kyi's first act as state counsellor is to begin the release of the country's remaining political prisoners, reported to number over 500.

Negotiations begin to try to resolve the intractable ethnic conflicts that have plagued Burma since independence in 1948.

A commission is set up to look for solutions to religious conflict between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine State. The commission is headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

On the ground, the situation for the Rohingya continues to deteriorate.

In October, nine Burmese police officers are killed when guard posts near the border with Bangladesh are attacked by Muslim militants. In response, the Burmese military unleash a new round of anti-Muslim violence. There are reports of extra-judicial executions, arbitrary arrests, destruction of dwellings, widespread rape, and thousands of displacements. The military presence in the region is bolstered, an anti-insurgency operation is launched, independent observers are denied access and aid deliveries are suspended.

Further attacks by Muslim militants in August 2017 prolong and intensify anti-Muslim reprisals by the military and Rakhine Buddhists. As the death toll mounts, thousands of Rohingya flee across the border to Bangladesh. By January 2018 about 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh.

The UN high commissioner for human rights labels the exodus as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing". A report by the UN concludes that the widespread violations against the Rohingya population in Rakhine State very likely amounted to crimes against humanity. A later UN report finds that attacks against the Rohingya were "coordinated and systematic". In November 2017, the US State Department officially describes the violence against the Rohingya as "ethnic cleansing".

Suu Kyi remains largely silent on the issue. She refuses to even use the word "Rohingya". Calls from the international community for her to speak out on the Rohingya's behalf are ignored. Suu Kyi also fails to publicly criticise the actions by the military and Buddhist extremists.

In a throwback to the days of the junta, dissenting views within Burma are suppressed using laws restricting freedom of speech. Two Burmese journalists investigating the violence in Rakhine State are arrested and charged with unlawfully obtaining secret government documents.

2018 - In February the UN special envoy on human rights in Burma says the military operations against the Rohingya bear "the hallmarks of genocide". Suu Kyi, the UN envoy says, is complicit in the violence and could eventually face charges relating to genocide or crimes against humanity.

Comment

Aung San Suu Kyi was one of the most inspirational leaders of the final decades on the 20th Century. Her nonviolent struggle against a repressive regime at great personal cost was revered by the oppressed population of Burma and lauded by the international community. She was a more than worthy winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. The Nobel Committee was justified in describing her struggle as "one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades". She had become, the committee said, "an important symbol in the struggle against oppression".

Suu Kyi seemed to have surmounted all the odds when she became the effective leader of Burma in 2016. The National League for Democracy held a majority of seats in the new parliament. The process of political and social reform seemed to have crossed a tipping point beyond which it could not be reversed. Suu Kyi's reputation seemed secure. But then the underbelly of Burma's ethnic and religious sensitivities was exposed.

An uprising by Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in western Burma lead to a disproportionate reaction by Burma's military. All the old military excesses came back into play - extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests, destruction of villages, rape, unprovoked attacks. The Rohingya began to flee, first in tens of thousands, then in hundreds of thousands.

Through it all, Suu Kyi refused to speak out on the Rohingya's behalf. She failed to condemn the military or to question the religious and social bigotry that underlies the persecution of the Rohingya by Burma's Buddhist majority. Those in the international community who had championed Suu Kyi during her years in detention began to question her silence. Eventually the questions turned to criticism. Suu Kyi was called an apologist for ethic cleansing and a handmaiden to genocide. Finally, a United Nations official stated that Suu Kyi was complicit in the violence against the Rohingya and could eventually face charges relating to genocide or crimes against humanity.

Many commentators have pondered the reasons for Suu Kyi's silence and spectacular fall from grace. Some argue that because the military remain a dominating force in Burma, Suu Kyi needs to step lightly in order to avoid a return to martial law. Some say that Suu Kyi has become politically isolated, that she lives in a bubble surrounded by courtiers who are too afraid to tell her the truth or only prepared to tell what they think she wants to hear. Some claim she is authoritarian and arrogant and unwilling to accept any advice that may be proffered. Some believe she is becoming more and more closely aligned to the military. Some say she is simply in deep denial.

Whatever the cause, it is evident that Suu Kyi is not the person the world once thought she was. At the most basic level, Suu Kyi is just another politician. At a slightly more nuanced level, she is a Burmese nationalist politician who appears to be prepared to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses suffered by ethnic groups other than her own.