Aung San Suu Kyi: Courage in the Face of Tyranny

05/22/2009 01:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"There is nothing to compare with the courage of ordinary people whose names are unknown and whose sacrifices pass unnoticed. The courage that dares without recognition, without the protection of media attention, is a courage that humbles and inspires and reaffirms our faith in humanity."--Aung San Suu Kyi

Those who fought to establish America's freedoms knew all too well the great sacrifice that was required. The quest for freedom takes on various forms and many voices in countries around the world. For some, it is a striving to speak freely. For others, it is an attempt to live their lives free of government interference. For still others, it is an effort to raise their children free from the terrors of warfare and persecution.

For the people of Burma--renamed Myanmar by the military junta that controls the country--their quest touches on all aspects of this struggle. And it is embodied in the life and work of a solitary courageous woman--Aung San Suu Kyi, a 63-year-old pro-democracy fighter who has spent more than 13 of the last 19 years under house arrest without trial.

Suu Kyi's love of her people and the land date back to a time when her father, General Aung San, led Burma out from under British colonialism to self-rule. After Aung San's assassination by political rivals, the country quickly fell under control of the military. Despite popular elections for civilian rule, the military has maintained its stronghold on the Burmese people to such an extent that when Suu Kyi assumed leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the military government, fearing her popularity, placed her under house arrest at her lakeside villa in Rangoon.

In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent efforts on behalf of the oppressed people of Burma. Suu Kyi's husband and sons accepted the Peace Prize on her behalf because she was still under house arrest in Rangoon. Since that first confinement on July 20, 1989, which lasted for six years, Suu Kyi has been detained on two other occasions. The most recent arrest occurred in late May 2003, when junta forces took Suu Kyi into "protective custody" after skirmishes broke out between her supporters and a pro-junta group. Although various heads of state have demanded her release, the woman referred to as Burma's hope for freedom has remained a prisoner.

Despite worldwide protests and appeals from a cross-spectrum of governments, world leaders and celebrities, the military junta has repeatedly extended her house arrest for a variety of thinly contrived reasons. Now, in a most bizarre development, the Burmese government has charged Suu Kyi with violating a Burmese law that requires all citizens to notify authorities if anyone other than a family member wants to stay overnight in their homes. This after a 53-year-old American, John Yettaw, swam across a lake that backs up to the house where Suu Kyi is held under house arrest and, pleading exhaustion and leg cramps, stayed overnight. If convicted, Suu Kyi could face five years in prison, rather than the house arrest which should have expired this May.

As I think about the sacrifices Suu Kyi has made in the hope of someday securing freedom for the Burmese people, I wonder how far most Americans, complacent in their materialistic lifestyles, would be willing to go--how much they would be willing to sacrifice--to safeguard their basic rights of association, assembly, protest and expression. When Aung San Suu Kyi was last released from confinement, she was given a choice: walk away from Burma after years of confinement to reunite with her family and enjoy her freedom or stay and fight for democracy. She chose to stay and fight.

In a letter written in 1996, after her first release from confinement, Suu Kyi asked,

How many can be said to be leading normal lives in a country where there are such deep divisions of heart and mind, where there is neither freedom nor security? When we ask for democracy, all we are asking is that our people should be allowed to live in tranquility under the rule of law, protected by institutions which will guarantee our rights, the rights that will enable us to maintain our human dignity, to heal long festering wounds and to allow love and courage to flourish. Is that such a very unreasonable demand?

Faced with an executive branch that is demanding greater powers over the American people with every passing day, faced with a Congress that signs invasive legislation into being and asks questions afterwards, faced with a government that seems to be slipping inexorably closer to being a police state, we might ask the very same thing. How can Americans lead such seemingly normal lives when all around us the walls seem to be closing in?

As Suu Kyi's son remarked in his Nobel acceptance speech on her behalf, "The lonely struggle taking place in a heavily guarded compound in Rangoon is part of the much larger struggle, worldwide, for the emancipation of the human spirit from political tyranny and psychological subjection."

As the world continues to wait and watch for the next installment in this courageous woman's quest to ensure freedom for her people, let us not forget that Suu Kyi's struggle for freedom should be our struggle as well. In an interview with Time magazine, Suu Kyi remarked, "[P]eople who expect too much do too little. If they want something, they have got to work for it, and there is a lot of work to do."