It's a Saturday afternoon in Rangoon. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, climbs up on the gates of her crumbling lakeside villa, takes a microphone in her hand and speaks of democracy. Hundreds of thousands of supporters come in from all over the country to greet "The Lady," as they affectionately call her, and celebrate the end of the 15 years of house arrest imposed on her by the country's military junta. In her speech, while Aung San Suu Kyi explains concepts such as freedom of the press and the right to assembly in the most elegant Burmese, certain English phrases seep in: "social contract," "nonviolence" and "Martin Luther King." This was November 2010, and earlier this month, Aung San Suu Kyi created a milestone for her country by taking the oath as a member of the Burmese parliament.
For the past two decades, Aung San Suu Kyi has personified the human aspiration for liberty. By dedicating her life to securing freedom for the people of Burma, she's become a worldwide symbol of hope. Throughout her quest for freedom, Suu Kyi has championed and advocated a socially engaged Buddhism that has lent moral authority to her quest against the Burmese military regime. She communicates the values of liberal democracy and the universality of human rights in culturally specific Buddhist idioms. In doing so, she has perhaps become the first modern female Buddhist civic leader in politics.
Aung San Suu Kyi is not alone in translating her inspiration from faith heroes in other religions into her own faith's context. Martin Luther King Jr. himself was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's use of the Hindu notion, satyagraha (truth force), as a political tactic and invoked it in his sermons to oppose the Vietnam War. Reminiscent of King's sermons opposing the War in Vietnam, Suu Kyi in 2011 placed the Burmese movement for democracy in a Buddhist context in her Reith Lecture for the BBC:
Buddhism teaches that the ultimate liberation is liberation from all desire. It could be argued, therefore, that the teachings of the Buddha are inimical to movements that are based on the desire for freedom in the form of human rights and political reform. However, when Buddhist monks of Burma went on a Metta -- that is, loving kindness -- march in 2007, they were protesting against the sudden steep rise in the price of fuel that had led to a devastating rise in food prices. They were using the spiritual authority to move for the basic right of the people to affordable food. The belief in spiritual freedom does not have to mean an indifference to the practical need for the basic rights and freedoms that are generally seen as necessary that human beings may live like human beings.
Aung San Suu Kyi has advocated for a grassroots-level engagement with democratic reforms to bring about material and moral improvement in society. Her writings suggest a Buddhist vision of civil society in which people, empowered to resist corruption and coercion, can live in freedom from fear. In her essay, "In Quest of Democracy" (PDF), she credited Buddhism with motivating the Burmese people behind the nonviolent struggle for democracy:
"The Burmese people go to the heart of the matter by turning the words of the Buddha on the four causes of decline and decay: failure to recover that which has been lost, omission to repair that which has been damaged, disregard for the need for reasonable economy, and the elevation to leadership of men without morality or learning."
Aung San Suu Kyi, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, shows how one's faith and secular values can provide a much-needed moral compass for fighting social injustice in our world. Her latest move toward reconciliation with the same people who imprisoned her is not a sign of weakness, but rather a realization of the opportunity to unshackle Burma from a past that has kept it isolated and impoverished. Her election marks the beginning of a new era in Burma where there will be a greater emphasis on the role of the people in everyday politics.