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.
In 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."