Chicago 2 Author/Date

Courtney Hayforth

Dr. Ray Gen

AP Composition and Language

6 January 2018

      Profile in Myanmar: The Power of a Woman

        In Myanmar (often referred to as Burma), few would have thought the face of their rebellion against authoritarianism would be a woman. Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel laureate, won in 1990 for peace, who led the democratic movement against Myanmar's military regime and now sits in the Union Parliament (Zin and Joseph 2012, 112-13). Her journey began from the moment she was born to her father, Aung San—the most respected leader of a group who fought British colonial rule and ultimately helped found an independent state after World War II (Kurlantzick 2012). When the people of Myanmar began to revolt against the government the saw Aung San’s daughter as their leader, though she quickly made a name for herself locally and internationally through her campaigns and sacrifices. In correspondence with John F. Kennedy’s 1956 novel Profiles in Courage, “A man does what he must—in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures” (225) Suu Kyi did what she knew to be right, regardless of repercussions. Aung San Suu Kyi demonstrates courage both as a woman and a patriot as she puts her livelihood on the line in order to bring stability and democracy to her country of Myanmar.

        At the forefront of the movement to free Myanmar from its dictatorship was a woman willing to lose all she had for the sake of the cause. Aung San Suu Kyi often, if not always, put her country before herself. She lived in many places including the United States, Japan, and Britain before she returned home where she found massive anti-government protests. Her reputation as Aung San’s only daughter held strong and many Burmese reformers encouraged her to get involved; eventually, she made her first speech in 1988 at the Shwedagon Pagoda (Kurlantzick 2012). She founded and led the National League for Democracy (NLD) with several others and as she traveled across Myanmar, there is no doubt the consequences of opposing the military were ever present in her mind, not only the possibility of prison but the possibility of death. While campaigning in 1989, she truly put her life on the line; David I. Steinberg, who is specialist on Myanmar and distinguished professor of Asian Studies and U.S. Policy in Asia, believes her fearlessness was “evident [when] she bravely stood up to military pressure, at one point even in the face of guns.” (2010, 38). Not even an instance such as this could stop her and she continued to spread her political ideology, firing up the citizens against the government but in 1989 Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. According to the author and editor of multiple books on Myanmar Josef Silverstein, she was “denied freedom to communicate with family, political followers and party, although no formal charges were filed and no trial was held” (1996, 212). While in Myanmar her husband, Michael Aris, was diagnosed with cancer. The military agreed that she could leave the country to see her sons and dying husband in England, but she doubted they would allow her to return and decided to stay (Steinberg 2010, 39). Rebecca Frayn, screenwriter of the movie about Aung San Suu Kyi “The Lady” recognized that Suu Kyi was presented with the choice of either her family or Myanmar and she decided to surrendered her loved ones for the democratic cause of her country (2011) and Steinberg stated in his journal article on page 39 that “major political and social figures from around the world have rallied in support of her and her ideals.” because of it (2010). Suu Kyi was unable to see Michael before he died and was only recently united with her sons in 2010 when she was released from house arrest. This is a woman that has been unwavering in her crusade for Myanmar’s political freedom, resolving to do so in a non-violent manner. She may have been able to live peacefully staying in England with her family, but her selfless nature and deep-rooted Buddhist beliefs would not permit her to remain on the sidelines. In the words of Silverstein (1996), “Aung San Suu Kyi demonstrated her courage in the face of threat and showed that she would not be intimidated or made fearful. It was her model of courage which sustained the people who looked to her for leadership” (212).

        Regardless of how she was slandered or what the ramifications were for her decisions, Aung San Suu Kyi always acted in accordance with her moral principles. Although she received international support, the government in Myanmar made it their mission to discredit and defame her. Joshua Kurlantzick, a Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, discusses that during the early 2000s, the state-dominated media, often raised disgusting questions about her—to accuse her of being a foreign lackey, or even a whore because of her marriage to a foreigner, or to launch absurd charges that she and the members of her party were terrorists (2012). She could have avoided exposing herself to it while under house arrest, but Suu Kyi always wanted to remain aware, therefore, subjecting herself to these malicious statements. Despite the advocacy of figures such as Desmond Tutu and Kim Dae Jung and her sympathizers that believed she was “the answer to all Myanmar’s socio-political problems” (Steinberg 2010, 38), the blatant opposition of the military regime was right in front of her face while she was under house arrest for a total of 15 years. “Since coming to power, the [military] has published several hundred articles and more than five books detailing why Suu Kyi is unfit to lead the country” (Steinberg 2010, 38). However after a new leader came into power in 2010 and the state media, as well as the newly freed private media, began featuring stories about her everyday, referring to her as one of the country’s leaders (Kurlantzick 2012). In the end, even the people who opposed her could not stand against her steadfast will. The country’s attitude changed drastically because she held the same views as she did in 1989, expressing them vehemently with the world. Min Zin—a doctoral student in political science—and Brian Joseph—a senior program director for Asia and Global Programs at the National Endowment for Democracy came to the conclusion in 2012 that President Thein Sein knew there was no moving forward without support from Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD (112-13) due to her worldwide recognition and is Steinberg in agreement with them; Suu Kyi had too many supporters for them to make progress without the internationally known “feminine personification of besieged democracy” (2010, 39). In addition to remaining devoted to her beliefs against defamation, Suu Kyi decided the NLD would not participate in a national election in 1995 because it was undemocratic and her party was underrepresented (Silverstein 1996, 227); in a similar situation, the NLD did not take part in the 2010 national election because of unjust electoral laws. Silverstein relents that while her actions were denounced as traitorous, they also demonstrated that she will speak out and act without fear for principles and ideas which have been central to her thought” (1996, 228). She was also able to carry out plans such as these, once again, because of her huge base of advocates. Aung San Suu Kyi refused to make any compromises when comes to her moral and her duty to the people of Myanmar.

        Aung San Suu Kyi has remained a symbol of democracy in her country and arguably one of the most influential political prisoners, but her morals have recently come into question. A Muslim minority group known as the Rohingya is currently being religiously persecuted in Myanmar which is a Buddhist country. Many across the globe are looking to Suu Kyi who is saying little about reports such as an investigation directed by producer and editor Jack Garland and reported by Gabriel Gatehouse, a foreign correspondent for BBC News, involving 600,000 people that have sought refuge in Bangladesh from Myanmar’s military and survivors of a massacre in Tula Toli where 150 soldiers burned down the Rohingya village and killed over 500 people (2017). The military claims they are after Muslim militants and have not taken responsibility for the attack, but the survivors’ stories have been corroborated by video evidence, maps, and interviews conducted by human rights organizations. One survivor Gatehouse talked with, Anora Begum, said there were “local Buddhist civilians…They started snatching babies from their mothers’ arms and throwing them to the ground” (Garland 2017). Aung San Suu Kyi has finally gained an official position in the government in Myanmar, but she still has not addressed this deeply disconcerting issue. She has expressed her determination to stabilize Myanmar’s government, but according to Joshua Kurlantzick “she has no experience governing, and since she took up a seat in parliament, she has struggled to make the transformation from opposition leader to policy-maker” (Kurlantzick 2012). She also has little guidance from people in office considering a military regime was previously in power. During her “Freedom from Fear speech” Aung San Suu Kyi says, “The effort necessary to remain uncorrupted in an environment where fear is an integral part of everyday existence is not immediately apparent to those fortunate enough to live in states governed by the rule of law” (1990) which now seems to apply Suu Kyi herself. Myanmar has made progress, but the military is still a powerful entity and remains corrupted. In her efforts to create a fair government, she is less concerned with the Rohingya as a minority, dismissing them almost completely, and focused on the general population. However, Suu Kyi’s decision to remain idle has been severely detrimental to her reputation as a courageous woman. Laurel Wamsley, an experienced writer for multiple outlets such as NPR, Slate, and the BBC stated that High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein believes the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar is a perfect example of ethnic cleansing (2017). There is also the fact that it is a crime of omission because Suu Kyi is aware of the events concerning the Rohingya, but she has done nothing to stop it (Wamsley 2017). Aung San Suu Kyi’s bravery and sacrifice have been responsible for much of the progress in Myanmar, but whether she will be able to make it a truly democratic society remains to be seen.

        Dr. Valerie Palmer-Mehta, a professor at Oakland University that specializes in gender and rhetorical studies, states that Aung San Suu Kyi  “further destabilizes gender in relation to courage” (328) because this is one of the only times in history in which the world looks to a woman to build up a country wrought with violence and instability. In the words of Kurlantzick, “her courage will have to be revealed in the compromises she makes—the type of legacy that does not lead to Nobel Peace Prizes, but might well leave Myanmar a real future.”(2012). Aung San Suu Kyi’s commitment to Myanmar was proven through her familial relinquishment, staunch morality, and self-sacrifice. She has dedicated over 20 years of her life to advocating for democracy in her country. For Suu Kyi, courage is something she must possess and exude in order to oppose and resist the regime (Palmer-Mehta 2012, 328). She sees her actions against Myanmar’s government as her responsibility and being brave was not an option—it was a requirement. She has inspired thousands, if not millions, of people with her perseverance and altruistic behavior. Her current situation concerning the Rohingya does not negate what she has done for Myanmar, but it does call her character into question. The initiatives she takes now and during the times ahead will determine if she truly is “the avatar of democracy within Myanmar” (Steinberg 2010, 38) and to the external world.

Reference List

Frayn, Rebecca. 2011. “The Untold Love Story of Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi.” Telegraph, December 11, 2011.

Garland, Jack. 2017. “Rohingya Crisis: ‘Rape and Murder’ in the Village of Tula Toli - BBC News.” Filmed November 2017 at Myanmar. Video, 20:56.

Kennedy, John F. 1956. Profiles in Courage. New York: Harper.

Kurlantzick, Joshua. 2012. “The One They Were Looking For.” Democracy: A Journal of Ideals, Fall 2012.


Kyi, Aung San Suu. 1990. “Freedom from Fear.” Iowa State University, January 1, 1990.


Palmer-Mehta, Valerie. 2012. “Theorizing the Role of Courage in Resistance: A Feminist Rhetorical Analysis of Aung San Suu Kyi's ‘Freedom from Fear’

        Speech.” Communication, Culture, and Critique 5, no. 3 (September): 313-32.

Silverstein, Josef. 1996. “Freedom in Burma and the Political Thought of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.” Pacific Affairs 69, no. 2 (Summer): 211-28.

Steinberg, David I. 2010. “Aung San Suu Kyi and U.S. Policy Toward Burma/Myanmar.” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 29 (3): 35-59.

Wamsley, Laurel. 2017. “U.N. Human Rights Chief: Aung San Suu Kyi Could Be Culpable For Genocide.” National Public Radio, December 18, 2017.

Zin, Min and Bryan Joseph. 2012. “The Opening in Burma: The Democrats’ Opportunity.” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 4 (October): 104-19.