Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, now a member of parliament, leads pro-democracy initiatives with dignity and strength.
We carp about lobbyists and inadequate policies and protections. And until the Occupy Movement, our protests were rather small — and didn’t get much press, so we seem even whinier and more passive than we are in the eyes of the world.
But in the pro-democracy movements within countries where civil rights are hard won and harder fought, leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi show the importance of presence, persistence and patience.
Between 1989 and 2010, she spent 15 years under house arrest for her political activism in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Myanmar has been ruled by a military government since 1962. In 1990, the country held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy won 80% of Parliamentary seats. However, the military junta refused to step down, and was only dissolved in March, 2011.
Asked what democratic models Myanmar could look to, she said: “We have many, many lessons to learn from various places, not just the Asian countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Mongoliaand Indonesia.” She also cited “the eastern European countries, which made the transition from communist autocracy to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Latin Americancountries, which made the transition from military governments. “And we cannot of course forget South Africa, because although it wasn’t a military regime, it was certainly an authoritarian regime.” She added: “We wish to learn from everybody who has achieved a transition to democracy, and also … our great strong point is that, because we are so far behind everybody else, we can also learn which mistakes we should avoid.”
Her leadership style: clarity, persistence, knowledge.
In a September 2012 interview in the Washington Post, she said: “What they have in me is someone to give an honest assessment of the situation. The [civil war] situation in the Kachin [state] is a major problem. If we are to have a genuinely peaceful nation, we will have to resolve these problems politically, not militarily.”
When asked how she kept going all those years, she referred to the storm that blew her roof off and forced her to live without electricity for some time, and her limited access to the world: “I had enough to do to keep this house from toppling down. I could listen to the radio, and I had access to books from time to time. Not all the time.”
When asked, “Do you want to be president,” she responded: “I don’t want to be president, but I want to be free to decide whether or not I want to be president of this country.”
Deep transformation takes time. What she helped create is only now being born. Across years when she could not publish anything under her own name, leave her house, or claim her elected place in government, she now rises as one of the more visible transformational leaders for democracy in a country still embattled and divided.
Note: I’ve written a recent article about her work as a politician. Click here to read an update about controversies in Myanmar, and here to read about the 25th anniversary of the 8.8.88 protests that brought visibility to pro-democracy movements in Burma/Myanmar.