The Lady

August 12, 2011
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“Long live Aung San Suu Kyi!” an ecstatic crowd of thousands surrounding Sao Shwe chanted. It would only be minutes before the iconic pro-democracy activist would greet the waiting people. Sao waved his poster and endlessly cheered for her freedom. Wearing a shirt that read, “We stand with Aung San Suu Kyi,” he blended in with the animated crowd, felt the open resilience, and eagerly awaited The Lady’s appearance. As he and his neighbors attempted to squeeze through the crowd for a better view of the podium where Suu Kyi would address them, he listened to the lively chatter around him and absorbed the delirious enthusiasm that filled the air. Officials informed them that The Lady would appear any moment now, and he could not stop moving. With camera in hand and standing on his toes, Sao chanted her name and pumped his fist with the now roaring crowd. Of all the events in his life, nothing mattered more to him. Only the sight of her could calm his anxiety. Then, she emerged. Everyone went wild. People shouted her name in unison, sang the national anthem, and snapped photos of the beautiful lady. Her face glowed with a spirit that reassured him of his and his country’s future. The Lady – Sao’s role model, the country’s symbol of freedom, the face of a new future – brought tears of hope to his eyes. He would trade this moment for no other.

That evening, thousands of other supporters’ hopes for democracy was revived. In one of the most corrupt and oppressive nation of Burma, internal political dissent was not permitted. The military junta, which rules the government, suppressed any form of political opposition in order to remain in power. An Oxford University graduate and a Noble Peace Prize laureate, Suu Kyi entered politics in 1988 and helped establish the National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Burma. Suu Kyi became the Secretary-General of the party and openly fought for freedom of speech, human rights, and democracy. As a result, government officials placed the popular and well-known dissident under house arrest in July 1989 for “endangering the state (Reuters).” Authorities confined her on and off to her lakeside house for fifteen of the past twenty-two years for her outspoken opposition and threat to the government’s power. Any mention of her name possibly resulted in the arrest of an individual. At the polls in 1990, the NLD won 392 of the 492 seats in the parliament which would have made Suu Kyi Burma’s Prime Minister. However, the corrupt junta refused to relinquish its authority. Instead, it designed a constitution to prevent her rise to power and has since taken control of the country as the State Peace and Development Council. In another election held in November 2010, a political party supported by the military government won. Western nations and Burmese citizens widely condemned the ballot as a sham. Seven days later on November 13, 2010, her most recent term of detention expired and Aung San Suu Kyi finally embraced freedom after years of confinement.

That morning, people waited on the other side of the security barricades that blocked the road to Suu Kyi’s compound. Some sat on the road as an act of defiance and opposition to the oppressive regime. Crowds also formed outside the NLD headquarters for updates on her release. At 3:00 pm local time, officials arrived at her house and read her the release papers, according to members of the NLD party. A member also revealed that Suu Kyi could have refused to sign the release papers if the conditions were unreasonable. The generals gave no indication of what was happening, making it unclear whether they would free her. Present at the scene were also thirty riot police armed with guns and teargas closely monitoring the event. At 4:30 pm, the police removed the barricades surrounding the pro-democracy leader’s house and people surged forward to the platform. About 30 minutes later, she appeared on the platform behind the gate to her compound in a lilac dress and a flower in her hair. The deafening crowd which continuously chanted her name and sang the national anthem drowned out the 65 year old lady who tried to address the ecstatic people. When the cheers subsided, she briefly addressed the people, “If we work in unity, we will achieve our goal” (Associated Press). She then returned inside to meet with NLD leaders for the first time in seven years.

Western leaders soon responded and welcomed her release. According to, United States President Obama called her “a hero of mine,” and United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron commented that her release was “long overdue.” Western nations and human rights groups previously condemned Burma for suppressing peaceful forms of resistance. To further pressure the nation into freeing political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, Western countries imposed many sanctions on Burma. The United States banned any financial dealings with the ruling authorities and enacted bans on timber, gems, and military training. Similarly, the European Union sanctions also included trading conditions, a visa ban on top authorities and their relatives, and a freeze of their monetary assets. However, there was disagreement on how effective the sanctions were and whether they promoted changes in the government structure. Because Burma was already an impoverished nation, people believed that sanctions worsened the situation for the majority of the people yet did not harm the ruling generals. The elite stayed unaffected by profiting off some Western energy corporations and Asian investments in an offshore natural gas field. Suu Kyi herself expressed skepticism with the efficacy of sanctions in November during her release. However, International Monetary Fund reports claimed that the sanctions have not severely impacted the Burmese people and actually harmed the members of the military junta. Currently, the West is assessing the effectiveness of lifting sanctions on Burma. Since Suu Kyi’s release, the U.S. and the E.U. eased their restrictions by allowing foreign banks to work with the Burmese government. Jennifer Quigley, the advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign on Burma describes the situation as a “wait-and-see game” on whether the government will make any moves toward democracy (TIME).

While the West closely monitors the situation in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi is working to fulfill several goals. Government officials ignore her requests to speak to them regarding reconciliation. They remove all mentions of her from the press. Suu Kyi comments that her release “alone is virtually meaningless until the junta enters into an irreversible process of dialogue resulting in national reconciliation between the junta, the National League for Democracy, and ethnic groups and a restoration of democracy to Burma (” Although she has little success with directly contacting authorities, she is working to expand the NLD party with other pro-democratic groups this year. Suu Kyi is also meeting with foreign dignitaries in order to bring constant attention to the domestic political policies in Burma. By doing so, she believes that the global awareness and pressure will incite change in the government, which has been known to mistreat political rebels when the foreign media is closed off by the country. The public has regained its hope with the presence of Suu Kyi and continues to actively support the NLD.

Although Aung San Suu Kyi’s release indicates a positive step toward democracy, I believe that the government used her to maneuver its way out of sanctions and pressure from the West. I fully support her fight for democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech. Despite Suu Kyi’s painstaking efforts to meet with government authorities to discuss political issues, the junta refuses to acknowledge the request and censors the local press to exclude any information on her. In addition, the ruling elites seem completely unwilling to relinquish their power because they profit from investments in the natural gas field offshore and other energy companies. When Suu Kyi was previously released from other terms of house arrest, the government did not make any changes to promote democracy. Therefore, it is unlikely that the junta will make any attempts this time. The widespread corruption in Burma is intolerable; the oppression may result in future uprisings and turmoil. If corruption continues, the West should continue to impose sanctions and encourage foreign, especially Asian, nations to do so as well, so that Burma’s economy will suffer and the government will be pressured to open its doors to democracy.

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