History Makers features people who have made a difference and explores the impact they have left on the world. This week we are discussing a key figure in Myanmar history and current affairs, Aung San Suu Kyi.
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Aung San Suu Kyi was born on June 19, 1945 in Rangoon, Burma, present-day Yangon, Myanmar. She was one of three children, along with two brothers – one of whom tragically died at an early age.
Her father, Aung San, was killed when she was only two years old. He was famous for having founded the modern Burmese army. He also negotiated Burma’s independence from British colonial rule in 1947, just before being assassinated by political rivals.
Next, two-year-old Aung San Suu kyi (center) is seen with her parents and two older brothers in this 1947 photo. Photo: APIn 1960, Suu Kyi’s mother, Daw Khin Kyi, became Myanmar’s Ambassador to India. After studying in Rangoon, Suu Kyi then moved with her mother to New Delhi, India, where she graduated from high school and then attended university.
After graduating in 1964, she was accepted into the University of Oxford in Great Britain where she studied philosophy, politics and economics. While there, she met Michael Aris, a specialist in Tibetan culture; the two got married and had two children.
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Beginning of his political career
In 1988, Suu Kyi returned to Burma to care for her aging mother. On August 8, mass protests began across the country calling for democracy, inspiring Suu Kyi to speak out on August 26 in support of the protests at a rally in Rangoon in front of a crowd of around 500,000 people.
In this photo taken on August 26, 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi (top, center) addresses an anti-military rally in Yangon (Rangoon). Photo: AFPThe Burmese leaders did not listen to the people. In September 1988, they formed a new military government. In response, Suu Kyi created the National League for Democracy (NLD). The government placed her under house arrest the following year and also changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar.
In the 1990 general election, the NLD won over 80 percent of the seats in parliament that were contested that year. But the government ignored the vote and continued to keep Suu Kyi under house arrest, which occasionally lasted until 2010. At that time, she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and although she had the possibility of leaving the country, she refused to leave until the end of the military regime and the release of political prisoners.
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State Councilor and Rohingya Crisis
In 2012, the NLD won 43 of the 45 parliamentary seats contested in the elections and Suu Kyi was sworn in as leader of the opposition. After another landslide victory in the 2015 election, the NLD created the post of state councilor, similar to a prime minister, and appointed Suu Kyi in 2016.
However, she has been criticized for her handling of the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State, in the north of the country. For decades, the Rohingya – a predominantly Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist country – have complained of discrimination and violence from the Myanmar government, which denied them citizenship after the country gained independence in 1948.
Rohingya refugees walk with their belongings after crossing from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Photo: AFPIn response to attacks by Rohingya militants in 2017, the Burmese military launched one of its largest campaigns against the Rohingya, which led more than 730,000 of them to neighboring Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi faced growing international criticism for her lack of response to the crisis, and Amnesty International withdrew her prestigious human rights award in 2018. In 2019, Suu Kyi appealed to the judges of the World Court in The Hague to dismiss charges of genocide against Myanmar, although the initial decision of the International Court of Justice in 2020 ordered the Myanmar government to protect the Rohingya from persecution and murder.
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Military coup and demonstrations
After the NLD’s victory in the November 2020 general election, the military-backed opposition party claimed the election results were fraudulent, although this was contested by a group of independent observers, the Asian Network for Free Elections. On February 1, 2021, the military took control of the government, declared a one-year state of emergency, and detained elected NLD leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
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In response to the coup, countless protests and strikes by workers against essential services broke out across the country, and the military responded with water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition.
Protesters hold up placards calling for the release of Suu Kyi during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: EPA-EFEAs of July 5, the advocacy group Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners said more than 890 people had been killed in the crackdown and more than 6,500 people had been arrested. On June 30, more than 2,000 protesters were released from prisons across the country, although many more remain.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial began on June 14 and continues as she battles various charges, and could face more than a decade in prison if convicted on all counts.