International Papers

Aung San Suu Kyi: Housewife, Political Superstar

The military junta of Burma (officially known as Myanmar) released Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from 19 months of house arrest Monday, awakening hopes of what she called “a new dawn for the country.” Most papers agreed with Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post that the move was “a significant, though still small, step forward in the attempt to create a more open and democratic form of government in Myanmar.” A government statement released just after Suu Kyi was freed said, “We shall recommit ourselves to allowing all of our citizens to participate freely in the life of our political process, while giving priority to national unity, peace and stability of the country as well as the region.”

By all accounts, Suu Kyi is a leader of extraordinary intelligence, composure, and grace, but it’s hard not to notice how many male reporters turn her inspiring biography into the stuff of romance novels. Marcus Gee’s fascinating story in Toronto’s Globe and Mail was typical of the genre; it began: “Aung San Suu Kyi life story has all the marks of a classic fable. Like young King Arthur, she lost a noble father. Like Luke Skywalker, she came from obscurity to fight evil. Like Rapunzel, she is beautiful and imprisoned. She even wears flowers in her black hair.” Suu Kyi’s father, Gen. Aung San, led the struggle for Burmese independence after fifty years of British rule and three years of Japanese occupation. He was assassinated in 1947, six months before independence, when Suu Kyi was 2. Educated in India and Britain, she married a British professor of Tibetan studies, had two sons, and settled into “the quiet life of a wife and homemaker.” When her mother fell ill in 1988, she returned to Rangoon, and as Gee notes, “She could not have known it then, but she would never live under the same roof as her husband and boys again.” Suu Kyi founded the National League for Democracy, which won 82 percent of the vote in elections permitted by the junta in 1990. However, the government refused to recognize the results and has cracked down the party and its leader ever since. Suu Kyi has spent eight of the last 12 years under house arrest. The other—genuinely sad—parts of the sob story: The junta’s refusal to allow her terminally ill husband to visit Burma (thus forcing Suu Kyi to decide whether to travel to Britain to see her husband, knowing she would be exiled from her homeland—she stayed) and her isolation from her children, who, according to Gee, “went through the formative years of adolescence without a mother.”

Most papers concluded that the junta freed Suu Kyi to win a relaxation of international economic sanctions. Once “the rice bowl of Asia,” Burma is now an impoverished country beset by runaway inflation, heroin addiction, and an AIDS epidemic. The Financial Times declared, “Though the generals are loath to admit it publicly, their regime badly needs international help and they appear to believe they can no longer afford to ignore or silence someone who can unlock foreign funds as Ms Suu Kyi can.” For the Sydney Morning Herald Monday’s events proved that sanctions work: “The argument in favour of the use of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation against repressive states—regardless of the hardships this imposes on ordinary people—relies on the belief that national bankruptcy will, eventually, bring such regimes down.”

Should the sanctions now be eased? The Australian favored some attenuation; it recommended that Suu Kyi “should seize on the military’s economic concession and work to open Burma’s economy” because establishing an “aspirational class” will unleash citizens’ “zeal for democracy.” Writing in the Daily Telegraph, James Mawdsley, a British pro-democracy activist who spent 415 days in a Burmese jail, said no: “The military junta has not had a softening of heart. Nor have the generals just discovered the rule of law. We know this because they are still making political arrests.” The Times of London said the world should be guided by Suu Kyi:

She has the moral and political mandate still. If she believes that further sanctions will do more harm by deepening poverty than good by changing the junta’s stance, she may, without compromising her ideals, attempt to lure the military into some concessions to popular accountability. That would be a triumph for her, a vindication of her endurance and a possible route for a detestable regime to move towards something more democratic and acceptable.