“To live the full life,” she once said, “one must have the courage to bear the responsibility of the needs of others . . . one must want to bear this responsibility.”
She is Aung San Suu Kyi, an extraordinary example of the courage to speak to power.
One of the most important symbols for people everywhere in the struggle against oppression, she was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts at working for democracy for her country of Myanmar (Burma).
Her father, Aung Sun, led the fight for Burma’s independence from Britain in the 1940s. Though he was assassinated when Suu Kyi was only 2 years old, his courage and commitment to freedom inspired her.
After Aung Sun’s death, a brutal military government took control in Burma. Suu Kyi received her education abroad and, after graduating from Oxford University, worked for a time for the United Nations.
In 1972 she married Michael Aris, a British professor. Together they had two sons and settled in Oxford. When her mother became gravely ill in 1988, she returned to Burma to care for her.
While she was there, demonstrations against the growing oppression in Burma mounted. Though the situation was very unstable, Suu Kyi became deeply involved, writing a highly charged open letter to the government and following that with speeches around the country promoting human rights, democracy and non-violence. Her message resonated with thousands who soon joined her.
On one occasion, she found herself face to face with army troops, their rifles aimed to fire at her. She asked supporters with her to step aside while she continued to walk toward the troops. Only at the last possible moment did a commander step in and order the rifles lowered.
She later explained, “It seemed so much simpler to provide them with a single target than to bring everyone else in.
“In July 1989 she was placed under house arrest. In May 1990, political elections were held, and her National League for Democracy won over 80 percent of the seats in the national assembly. The regime in power refused to accept the election results, however, and shot to death thousands of unarmed protestors.
Soldiers surrounded Suu Kyi’s house and cut off her contacts with her family still in England, her followers and the media. She and her supporters suffered under appalling conditions imposed by the brutal regime.
She could have surrendered at any time if she had agreed to leave Burma forever. But she refused. Her work was not done.
After six difficult years, pressure from the outside world ended her house arrest, but the government still forbade her to give speeches. They continued to spy on her and harass her.
Today her movements are still restricted. She has occasional opportunity to talk with her family in England. Her husband Michael died of cancer in 1999, the Burmese government denying his last requests to see her.
Though the government-controlled media regularly denounces her, she remains widely popular and continues to push for the cause of democracy. Earlier this week she openly criticized the ruling military junta for its lack of progress in national reconciliation talks.
She is still free to leave Burma, though she would never be permitted to return. She regards her continued separation from her sons as one of the sacrifices she must make in order to work for a free Burma.
The courage to speak to power comes at a great price. Just ask Aung San Suu Kyi, Sherron Watkins, Colleen Rowley, Cynthia Cooper. And Miriam, that young Hebrew girl whose courageous voice helped set in motion God’s plan for a nation.
Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.
To read more from the fascinating biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, visit the official Web site of The Nobel Foundation at www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1991.