Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi has been frustrated by the pace of reforms in Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a majority win in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 25 years in November 2015.

The win came five years to the day since she was released from 15 years of house arrest.

The 70-year-old spent much of her time between 1989 and 2010 in some form of detention because of her efforts to bring democracy to military-ruled Myanmar (Burma) – a fact that made her an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression.

In 1991, “The Lady” as she’s known, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the committee chairman called her “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless”.

However, after her release and subsequent political career, Ms Suu Kyi has come in for criticism by some rights groups for what they say has been a failure to speak up for Myanmar’s minority groups during a time of ethnic violence in parts of the country.

Political pedigree

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San.

He was assassinated during the transition period in July 1947, just six months before independence, when Ms Suu Kyi was only two.

Ms Suu Kyi (centre) was a toddler when her father was assassinated

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In 1960 she went to India with her mother Daw Khin Kyi, who had been appointed Myanmar’s ambassador in Delhi.

Four years later she went to Oxford University in the UK, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics. There she met her future husband, academic Michael Aris.

After stints of living and working in Japan and Bhutan, she settled in the UK to raise their two children, Alexander and Kim, but Myanmar was never far from her thoughts.

When she arrived back in Rangoon (Yangon) in 1988 – to look after her critically ill mother – Myanmar was in the midst of major political upheaval.

Thousands of students, office workers and monks took to the streets demanding democratic reform.

“I could not as my father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on,” she said in a speech in Rangoon on 26 August 1988, and was propelled into leading the revolt against the then-dictator, General Ne Win.

Inspired by the non-violent campaigns of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King and India’s Mahatma Gandhi, she organised rallies and travelled around the country, calling for peaceful democratic reform and free elections.

But the demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the army, who seized power in a coup on 18 September 1988. Ms Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest the following year.

The military government called national elections in May 1990 which Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD convincingly won – however, the junta refused to hand over control.

House arrest

Ms Suu Kyi remained under house arrest in Rangoon for six years, until she was released in July 1995.

She was again put under house arrest in September 2000, when she tried to travel to the city of Mandalay in defiance of travel restrictions.

She was released unconditionally in May 2002, but just over a year later she was put in prison following a clash between her supporters and a government-backed mob.

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She was later allowed to return home – but again under effective house arrest.

During periods of confinement, Ms Suu Kyi busied herself studying and exercising. She meditated, worked on her French and Japanese language skills, and relaxed by playing Bach on the piano.

At times she was able to meet other NLD officials and selected diplomats.

But during her early years of detention she was often in solitary confinement. She was not allowed to see her two sons or her husband, who died of cancer in March 1999.

The military authorities had offered to allow her to travel to the UK to see him when he was gravely ill, but she felt compelled to refuse for fear she would not be allowed back into the country.

Re-entering politics

She was sidelined from Myanmar’s first elections in two decades on 7 November 2010 but released from house arrest six days later.

Her son Kim Aris was allowed to visit her for the first time in a decade.

As the new government embarked on a process of reform, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party rejoined the political process.

When by-elections were held in April 2012, to fill seats vacated by politicians who had taken government posts, she and her party contested seats, despite reservations.

“Some are a little bit too optimistic about the situation,” she said in an interview before the vote. “We are cautiously optimistic. We are at the beginning of a road.”

She and the NLD won 43 of the 45 seats contested, in an emphatic statement of support. Weeks later, Ms Suu Kyi took the oath in parliament and became the leader of the opposition.

And the following May, she embarked on a visit outside Myanmar for the first time in 24 years, in a sign of apparent confidence that its new leaders would allow her to return.

‘Overly optimistic’

However, Ms Suu Kyi became frustrated with the pace of democratic development.

In November 2014, she warned that Myanmar had not made any real reforms in the past two years and warned that the US – which dropped most of its sanctions against the country in 2012 – had been “overly optimistic” in the past.

And in June, a vote in Myanmar’s parliament failed to remove the army’s veto over constitutional change. Ms Suu Kyi is also barred from running for president because her two sons hold British not Burmese passports – a ruling she says is unfair.

In 2015, the military-backed civilian government of President Thein Sein said a general election would be held in November – the first openly contested election in 25 years.

Early on after the vote on 8 November it became clear the NLD was headed for a landslide victory.

On 13 November, the NLD secured the required two-thirds of the contested seats in parliament to win a majority in what was widely regarded as a largely fair vote – although there were some reports of irregularities.

However, hundreds of thousands of people – including the Muslim Rohingya minority, who are not recognised as citizens – were denied voting rights.