Cool Hero of the Day: Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition party in Burma, received U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her home in Rangoon on December 1 and 2. Some concessions by the brutal Burmese regime–a release of political prisoners and more tolerance for free speech and assembly–may have prompted Clinton’s visit, the first by a Secretary of State in 50 years. “The U.S. wants to a be a partner with Burma as we work with you toward democratization,” she said.

Suu Kyi was released from house arrest a year ago following elections widely regarded as rigged in favor of the ruling regime.

For years Suu Kyi has advocated the policy of isolation and sanctions against Burma which Western nations have adopted. With this new U.S. overture, she seems cautiously open to changing that stance. “If we move forward together I am confident there will be no turning back on the road to democracy,” she said. “We are not on that road yet, but we hope to get there as soon as possible with the help and understanding of our friends.”

Suu Kyi has every reason to be cautious when it comes to the ruling generals’ intentions. Raised mostly abroad after the assassination of her father, General Aung San, she returned to Burma to care for her ailing mother. The visit coincided with the student uprising referred to as 8-8-88 for its remarkable date. The brutal crackdown on the students moved her to stay in Burma and devote herself to the cause of Burma’s liberation from military dictatorship. Her political party, the National League for Democracy, won elections by a landslide in 1990, in spite of the regime’s interference. The generals have tried to mitigate her influence ever since.

She hasn’t been able to leave Burma for fear of not being able to return. She never saw her husband again; he died of cancer in 1999. She last saw her two children in 2000. She spent years under house arrest, with short releases, only to be confined again under trumped-up charges.

She has been inspired by the nonviolent campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. to achieve democratic freedoms for the Burmese people. Like Gandhi, she has dampened conflict between feuding ethnic groups. Her Buddhist beliefs strongly influence her worldview:

I am a believing Buddhist, so I am sure the teachings of Buddhism do affect the way I think. But more than that, I would state that when I started out in politics, in this movement for democracy, I always started out with the idea that this should be a process that would bring greater happiness, greater harmony and greater peace to our nation. And this cannot be done if you are going to be bound by anger and by desire for revenge.

She began practicing meditation regularly under house arrest:

I don’t know if [meditation] has been a process of self-discovery as much as one of spiritual strengthening…. But meditation has helped to strengthen me spiritually in order to follow the right path. Also, for me, meditation is part of a way of life because what you do when you meditate is to learn to control your mind through developing awareness. This awareness carries on into everyday life. For me, that’s one of the most practical benefits of meditation—my sense of awareness has become heightened. I’m now much less inclined to do things carelessly and unconsciously.

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