By Poppy Bragg
The 2011 Brighton Festival will celebrate the remarkable achievements of a woman who, since 1988, has dedicated her life to fighting for the freedom of the Burmese people and for the democratisation of her country.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely lauded by the global community and has received many human rights awards including the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, the Rafto Human Rights Prize in 1990 and the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
She has been described by U.S. President Barack Obama as “a hero”, British Prime Minister David Cameron called her “an inspiration” and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa said she was “a global symbol of moral courage”.
Her fight for democracy has also resulted in her spending a total of 15 years in detention – the majority under house arrest.
Her father, Aung San, was assassinated when she was only two years old and she left for India in 1960 when her mother became Burmese ambassador. She went to study at Oxford University and met her future husband, Michael Aris, with whom she has two children.
Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 to nurse her mother and became involved in the nationwide pro-democracy movement.
Following a military coup in September 1988, she helped form a new political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), but was put under house arrest and banned by the regime from standing in the 1990 elections.
The NLD won 82 per cent of the seats in Parliament but the dictatorship refused to recognise the results of the election, and Suu Kyi was held under house arrest until 1995.
Authorities encouraged her to go abroad to be with her family but she refused knowing she would not be allowed to return to Burma. She did not leave even to see her husband before he died of prostate cancer in London in 1999.
She was held under house arrest again from 2000 until 2002 for her continued campaigning.
In May 30, 2003, a convoy of vehicles she was travelling in was attacked and, though she was taken to safety, more than 70 of her supporters were killed.
Suu Kyi’s supporters maintain that the attack, which became known as the Depayin Massacre, was a government attempt to assassinate her. The government said it was a result of a riot between two political groups incited by the NLD and again placed her under house arrest.
She was finally released from this on November 13 last year.
While this was greeted with jubilation from her supporters, both she and they have warned that her release does not signify all is well in Burma.Zoya Phan of Burma Campaign UK, which supports greater human rights and democracy in Burma, said at the time: “We must not forget the thousands of other political prisoners still suffering in Burma’s jails.”
Burma Campaign UK estimate that there are around 2,100 political prisoners in Burma today.
Suu Kyi told the Financial Times in January 2011: “What I would like the world to realise is that the election and my release do not mean we have reached some kind of turning point. I was released because my term was up.”
The election she referred to was held on November 7, 2010 and the NLD were banned from standing. Even before it took place, concerns were being raised by groups such as Human Rights Watch, who described them as “elections that are intended to ensure continued military rule with a civilian façade”.
Since her release, Suu Kyi is continuing to work for real democracy in Burma and to raise awareness of the country’s situation.
This commitment is shown clearly in her messages to the Brighton Festival of which she is the guest director this year. She has described her involvement as both a great privilege and an opportunity, with the heart of her messages a plea:
“Please continue to use your liberty to promote ours.”
For further information on the situation in Burma go to http://www.burmacampaign.org.uk