Aung San Suu Kyi: From Politician to 'Democracy Icon' and Back Again

At a time of severe U.S. cynicism about party politics, Burma's living symbol of resistance to dictatorship embraces it wholeheartedly.


Andrew Burton/Reuters

It is human nature to want leaders we can admire and emulate, and who can inspire us. With the recent death of Vaclav Havel and the passing of Nelson Mandela into a long twilight, there is only one global figure who nearly universally embodies aspirations for freedom and human dignity around the world. She is "The Lady," Aung San Suu Kyi -- or as she is endearingly termed by her fellow citizens of Burma, Daw Suu.

Most leaders of democratic and liberation movements fail to live up to their iconic images. On close inspection, large human frailties become apparent: arrogance, petulance, insecurity, rigidity, myopia. Aung San Suu Kyi is not quite the saint her fervent followers and admirers see. "I have my own flaws and weaknesses," she told a Burmese audience in San Francisco. Many Burmese democrats want her to consult more widely, and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is badly in need of long-overdue organizational renovation. But in moral clarity, personal courage, and political vision, she stands alone, a global voice of democratic conscience and perseverance.

As with Havel and Mandela, and the conscience of freedom whom she often quotes, Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi's moral authority has grown through personal suffering and sacrifice. Beginning in July 1989, she spent 15 of the subsequent 21 years under house arrest in Rangoon, largely separated from her family and ultimately her dying husband. Her release from this captivity in November 2010, after Burma's military junta gave itself a landslide election victory, marked the real beginning of the country's political opening and a watershed for freedom comparable to the release of Nelson Mandela from a South African prison in February 1990.

The Democracy ReportIn the nearly quarter-century since her return to Burma and then her party's decisive victory in the 1990 national elections, cruelly annulled by the ruling military, Daw Suu Kyi has become the most widely admired international leader in the United States. Thus, her long delayed visit to America, her first since her house arrest, was bound to be a memorable affair. No other international activist can bring together liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, Barack Obama and John McCain, young and old, people of every race and faith, as she has done over an extraordinary 17 day-tour of America. Her visit, an exhausting succession of hard-to-get tickets, has spanned eight cities and a sweeping array of venues, from the Capitol Rotunda (where she received the Congressional Gold Medal awarded her in 2008) to college campuses, from private receptions to huge throngs of Burmese-Americans welcoming her reverentially as the mother of a nation about to be reborn. At the University of San Francisco last Saturday morning, House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator Dianne Feinstein, former Secretary of State George Shultz, and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee sat patiently in rapt attention, on wooden chairs with headphones for translation, while she gave the local Burmese community a message of hope and reconciliation -- and an appeal for humility in the quest to help.

Suu Kyi has carried to America a disarming grace, a soft-spoken but resolute confidence, and a Gandhian commitment to freedom, forgiveness and non-violence. To those who expected her to demand retribution for crimes against humanity far more serious than her house arrest -- or at least some kind of accounting in a truth and reconciliation commission -- she urged instead a spirit of pragmatism and dialogue. "We must learn to compromise without regarding it as humiliation," she told her fellow Burmese. The priority, she repeatedly stressed in many ways, must be rebuilding a country that has been decimated by 50 years of predatory military rule and necessary but crippling international sanctions.

Confounding some militant supporters of the human rights cause in Burma, she has supported the lifting of economic sanctions on Burma. Yet she has also counseled patience and deliberation, worrying about an indiscriminate "gold rush" of foreign investment. "We want democracy-friendly and human rights-friendly investors," she told an audience of the Asia Foundation in San Francisco. Burma also wants and urgently needs, economic, social and political assistance, as it climbs out of a half a century of decay that has left a broad swath of society, between the ages of 15 and 55, as a succession of "lost generations."

Given what the military did to rob her party of its 1990 election victory, and to arrest, torture, and kill generations of democratic activists, it is hard to imagine that she does not have a fierce desire for legal accountability, if not vengeance. But Suu Kyi follows Gandhi on the path to forgiveness: "If we march the long road to freedom in hatred, what we find at the end is not freedom but another prison," she told the San Francisco Freedom Forum. She made clear repeatedly on her American tour that she is relentlessly focused on the future. And she urged her fellow Burmese, here and at home, and her international well-wishers to do the same. "You can't be driven by ideology or romanticism," she cautioned her Burmese American audience at the University of San Francisco. The judicial action she urgently seeks is the institutional rebuilding of a thoroughly decimated legal system. The battle for democracy will not be won, she stressed, until Burma achieves "an independent, free, and well-trained judiciary."

The same is true for the legislature, of course. Having been elected to parliament in April by-elections (which saw her party sweep 43 of the 44 seats it contested), she is wasting no time in making that new institutional opportunity work to develop democracy in Burma. One of the regime's most powerful figures, parliament speaker Thura Shwe Mann, reached out to her by appointing her to chair a new parliamentary "Committee on the Rule of Law and Tranquility." From that platform, and as leader of the opposition in parliament, she is seeking dialogue with the military to a degree they probably never imagined. While keenly aware that the 2008 Constitution must be extensively amended to remove the vast, undemocratic powers it gives the military, for now she sees it as an opportunity that military officers occupy (by constitutional provision) a quarter of the seats in parliament. "It gives us a chance to engage the military, and the military a chance to see how the civilian aspects of democracy work," she told the Asia Foundation audience.

Aung San Suu Kyi knows that the path ahead is difficult and uncertain -- far from the "irreversible" march toward democracy that many inside and outside Burma are now giddily expecting. Hard bargaining lies ahead over constitutional reform to ensure that the country can emerge from the next national elections, in 2015, with a genuinely democratic form of government. Both peace and democracy require broad negotiations with the country's ethnic minority groups to establish a federal system in which different groups will have real political autonomy while surrendering any right to secede.

If federalism and self-government for all people of Burma are to be viable, the country needs to construct effective structures of local government. This will require massive training and institution building, a task that Suu Kyi regards as a priority for international assistance. And, she stresses, if corruption is not to infect the emerging competitive party system as it has poisoned the country under military rule, strong rules of accountability and transparency will need to be constructed. This is particularly true with respect to investment in mining Burma's natural resource wealth, where she and her party insist that the government sign on to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in order to contain the "resource curse."

In three of Suu Kyi's appearances in San Francisco over two days, the most telling moment for me came in answer to a question about her political plans -- does she aspire to lead her country? I suspect many in the Asia Foundation audience expected a coy rhetorical maneuver to preserve her status as a symbol of democracy and human rights that transcends partisan divisions. But rather than shying away from politics, she embraced it. "You should think of me as a political party leader. I was a politician before I was a 'democracy icon.' As the leader of a party you have to aspire to the leadership of the nation, because that means your party will have won, and every party wants to win."

A victory in 2015 for the NLD, or any political coalition involving Aung San Suu Kyi, would be a victory for democracy in Burma. Without politics, without party organization and electoral mobilization, there can be no such victory. At a time of rampant cynicism about parties and politicians in the United States, it is invigorating to have a "democracy icon" remind us that politics can be a noble calling -- and an indispensable means for advancing the public good.