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Aung San Suu Kyi: A Leader Born, a Leader Made

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Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi is today feted around the world. Why is she so celebrated? Before 2010, she spent fifteen of the previous twenty-one years under house arrest, jailed by the country’s military rulers. In 1989, she faced down the guns of the regime’s soldiers.  In 1990, her party triumphed in elections rigged against it, only to be deprived of the chance to take power when the election results were ignored. In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, something she says she heard about only on the radio in her lonely lakeside detention in the capital, Yangon.

A follower of Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi praises democracy, human rights, rule of law, and nonviolent struggle. She indigenizes these concepts with a particularly Buddhist slant (Burmese are 89 percent Buddhist). Though Buddhism views suffering as unavoidable, she hopes to “alleviate it as far as possible in practical, earthly ways.”1 In a 1989 writing, “In Quest for Democracy,” she analyzes a traditional set of aphorisms on the duties of kings and shows how many of them were supportive of democracy, which she links to “accountability, respect for public opinion, and supremacy of just laws.”2

Aung San Suu Kyi inspires many. During Myanmar’s long years of military rule, she asked those outside Myanmar to use their political freedoms to deprive the country’s military leaders of the foreign exchange that helped keep their regime afloat. “Please use your liberty to promote ours,” she opined. She calls on the Burmese people to persevere: “Free men are the oppressed who go on trying and who in the process make themselves fit to bear the responsibilities and to uphold the disciplines which will maintain a free society.”


To learn more about Aung San Suu Kyi, students can watch the film The Lady, staring Michelle Yeoh.  A recent biography of Suu Kyi is Peter Popham’s The Lady and the Peacock (Experiment, 2013).   For more information on Myanmar, read David Steinberg’s Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2013).  The Irrawaddy ( is a source of independent news covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia. 


1. Aung San Suu Kyi, “Nobel Lecture,” last modified June 16, 2012, 

2. Aung San Suu Kyi, “In Quest of Democracy,” Freedom from Fear (London: Penguin, 1991), 173.

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