Aung San Suu Kyi: Building on a legacy
of Martin Luther King Jr. & Gandhi
AUNG SAN SUU KYI
Nobel peace prize winner in Myanmar
Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence during the brief democracy uprising in Burma in 1988. (Burma’s name was changed formally by the military dictatorship to Myanmar, but many democracy advocates, ethnic minorities and the U.S. government still refer to the country as Burma.) During the month of demonstrations before the massive military crackdown that re-imposed military dominance Suu Kyi (pronounced sue she) was the main speaker, galvanizing the crowds with her speeches and her presence.
Aung San Suu Kyi bears the name of her father, Aung San, the general who led the independence struggle in Burma against the British. On the verge of independence Aung San was assassinated when his daughter was 2 years old, but he remains to this day a hero in the hearts of most Burmese. Until 1988 Suu Kyi had a relatively quiet life, growing up in a well-to-do family that lived in India and England. She studied at Oxford, married a British scholar and became a scholar herself while raising a family.
Her widowed mother served as Burma’s ambassador to India during Suu Kyi’s high school and early college years. There she was exposed to the life and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. She explored his work related to the anti-colonial struggle, comparing Gandhi to her honored father. In her studies she noted especially how remaining in his Hindu tradition nevertheless allowed Gandhi the intellectual flexibility to learn from and accept elements of other traditions that could fit into his ethical understanding and strengthen his work. As a scholar, then as a democracy activist, Suu Kyi took the teachings of nonviolent resistance in Gandhi and King and welded them into the non-elitist philosophy of Buddhism to build a broad-based movement for freedom. She also connected to Buddhist teachings about education, often focused in the monastery, as the way to come to enlightenment.
A central lesson Suu Kyi learned from Gandhi was how to deal with fear. In facing the overwhelming might and brutality of the Burmese military, dealing with fear would be a critical challenge, a challenge picked up in the title of her book “Freedom from Fear.” Jawaharlal Nehru’s description of Gandhi was especially meaningful to her: “The essence of his teaching was fearlessness and truth, and action allied to these, always keeping the welfare of the masses in view.”
Looking at the struggles of her own people she wrote, “A people who would build a nation in which strong, democratic institutions are firmly established as a guarantee against state-induced power must first learn to liberate their own minds from apathy and fear.” Another Hindu, Tagore (featured in Interfaith Heroes) gave her a special image in his poem Gitanjali in which he spoke of a state, “….where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.”
In an action that has become legendary for the people of Burma and other nonviolent activists around the world Suu Kyi directly confronted the Burmese Army. Defying a military ban on her political activity, she was on a campaign tour for the parliamentary election called by the military, running as a candidate with her National League for Democracy. Soldiers under the command of a captain knelt down to take aim at her. Suu Kyi motioned her followers to get off to the side of the road while she continued walking straight toward the guns aimed at her. “It seemed so much simpler to provide them with a single target than to bring everyone else in,” she explained. The order to fire was halted, and she walked through the line of soldiers.
In July, 1989 Suu Kyi was arrested. Despite having their leader under detention for months, the NLD overwhelmingly won the election in May 1990, but the military refused to let the elected parliamentarians be seated. Hundreds of NLD members were arrested and others fled into exile.
Under house arrest since 1989 with periodic short releases, Aung San Suu Kyi has remained steadfast and fearless in her nonviolent discipline and call for a democratic government in Burma. She has repeatedly cited the works and examples of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in her speeches and writings. Drawing upon the teachings of this Hindu and this Christian, she developed her own version of nonviolent action compatible with Buddhist spirituality.
NEWS UPDATE November 13, 2010:
On Saturday, November 13, 2010, the Guardian newspaper joined thousands of other news outlets around the world in reporting Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. The Guardian report said, in part:
Children danced, monks meditated and after sustained applause Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to supporters for the first time in years. As dusk gathered, the order came by mobile phone to take down the barricades. The roadblock that for years had blocked University Avenue, cutting Aung San Suu Kyi off from her people, was no more. As the police attempted to pull down the barbed wire, the crowd overwhelmed them; seven years of anger and generations of frustration forgotten in one joyous moment. The police, long feared as the front line of Burma’s brutal security apparatus, tried to order the crowd back, but were helpless to do so.
In longyis and sandals, Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters ran the 400 yards to the front gate of her home. One woman, a portrait of “The Lady” pinned to her shirt, wept as she ran, calling out her name. They pushed against the ancient, sagging bamboo fence, singing and chanting, “long live Aung San Suu Kyi.”
After 10 minutes, she appeared; the crowd roared.
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke only briefly. “There is a time to be quiet and a time to talk. People must work in unison. Only then can we achieve our goal,” she told the crowd to huge, sustained, applause.
(Originally published at http://www.ReadTheSpirit.com/)
- Interfaith Heroes: Mohandas Gandhi and the roots of nonviolent action
- Interfaith Heroes: Peacemaking wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—his sources and his legacy
- Interfaith Heroes: Aung San Suu Kyi and the legacy of Gandhi and King
- Interfaith Heroes: E. Stanley Jones and Gandhi’s legacy