Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar democracy icon who fell from grace

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She was once seen as a beacon for human rights - a principled activist who gave up her freedom to challenge the ruthless army generals who ruled Myanmar for decades.

In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, while still under house arrest, and hailed as "an outstanding example of the power of the powerless".

In 2015, she led her National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory in Myanmar's first openly contested election in 25 years. But she was deposed by a coup in 2021 when the military took control and arrested her and the political leadership around her.

While her image had suffered internationally due to her response to the crisis that befell Myanmar's mostly Muslim Rohingya minority, she remains hugely popular with the country's Buddhist majority.

Path to power

Ms Suu Kyi spent nearly 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010. Her personal struggle to bring democracy to then military-ruled Myanmar (also known as Burma) - made her an international symbol of peaceful resistance in the face of oppression.

Despite her landslide victory in 2015, the Myanmar constitution forbade her from becoming president because she has children who are foreign nationals. But Ms Suu Kyi, now 75, was widely seen as de facto leader.

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The Obama administration lifted sanctions on Myanmar in return for democratic reforms

Her official title was state counsellor. The President until the 2021 coup, Win Myint, was a close aide.

In 2020, her NLD once again won a landslide majority, getting even more votes than in the 2015 vote.

The still powerful military disputed the results, claiming election fraud. On the day parliament was to a sit for the first time, the military arrested Ms Suu Kyi along with many other political leaders.

It then declared a state of emergency, handing power to the military for a full year.

Ms Suu Kyi was later charged with illegally importing communications equipment. Police said they found seven walkie-talkie radios in her home which she was not authorised to possess.

Political pedigree

Ms Suu Kyi is the daughter of Myanmar's independence hero, General Aung San.

He was assassinated when she was only two years old, just before Myanmar gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948.

In 1960 she went to India with her mother Daw Khin Kyi, who had been appointed Myanmar's ambassador in Delhi.

Four years later she went to Oxford University in the UK, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics. There she met her future husband, academic Michael Aris.

After stints of living and working in Japan and Bhutan, she settled in the UK to raise their two children, Alexander and Kim, but Myanmar was never far from her thoughts.

Image source, Aris Family Collection/Getty Images
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Aung San Suu Kyi with Michael Aris and son Alexander in London in 1973

When she arrived back in Yangon in 1988 - to look after her critically ill mother - Myanmar was in the midst of major political upheaval.

Thousands of students, office workers and monks took to the streets demanding democratic reform.

"I could not as my father's daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on," she said in a speech in Yangon on 26 August 1988. She went on to lead the revolt against the then-dictator, General Ne Win.

House arrest

Inspired by the non-violent campaigns of US civil rights leader Martin Luther King and India's Mahatma Gandhi, she organised rallies and travelled around the country, calling for peaceful democratic reform and free elections.

But the demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the army, which seized power in a coup on 18 September 1988. Ms Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest the following year.

The military government called national elections in May 1990, which Ms Suu Kyi's NLD convincingly won - but the junta refused to hand over control.

Ms Suu Kyi remained under house arrest in Yangon for six years, until she was released in July 1995.

She was again put under house arrest in September 2000, when she tried to travel to the city of Mandalay in defiance of travel restrictions.

She was released unconditionally in May 2002, but just over a year later was imprisoned after a government-backed mob set upon her entourage in the north of the country. She escaped because of the swift action taken by her driver, but many of her supporters were savagely beaten and a number died.

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Huge crowds greeted Aung San Suu Kyi on her release from house arrest in 2010

She was later allowed to return home - but again under effective house arrest.

At times she was able to meet other NLD officials and selected diplomats, but during the early years she was often in solitary confinement. She was not allowed to see her two sons or her husband, who died of cancer in March 1999.

The military authorities had offered to allow her to travel to the UK to see him when he was gravely ill, but she felt compelled to refuse for fear she would not be allowed back into the country.

Re-entering politics

Ms Suu Kyi was side-lined from Myanmar's first elections in two decades on 7 November 2010 but released from house arrest six days later. Her son Kim was allowed to visit her for the first time in a decade.

As the new government embarked on a process of reform, Ms Suu Kyi and her party re-joined the political process.

They won 43 of the 45 seats contested in April 2012 by-elections, in an emphatic statement of support. Ms Suu Kyi was sworn in as an MP and leader of the opposition.

The following May, she left Myanmar for the first time in 24 years, in a sign of apparent confidence that its new leaders would allow her to return.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The NLD swept to victory in November 2015

The Rohingya crisis

Since becoming Myanmar's state counsellor, her leadership has been partly defined by the treatment of the country's mostly Muslim Rohingya minority.

In 2017 hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh due to an army crackdown sparked by deadly attacks on police stations in Rakhine state.

Myanmar now faces a lawsuit accusing it of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), while the International Criminal Court is investigating the country for crimes against humanity.

Ms Suu Kyi's former international supporters accused her of doing nothing to stop rape, murder and possible genocide by refusing to condemn the still powerful military or acknowledge accounts of atrocities.

A few initially argued that she was a pragmatic politician, trying to govern a multi-ethnic country with a complex history.

But her personal defence of the army's actions at the ICJ hearing in the Hague was seen as a new turning point for her international reputation.

At home, however, "the Lady", as Ms Suu Kyi is known, remains wildly popular among the Buddhist majority who hold little sympathy for the Rohingya.

Stalled reforms

During her time in power Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD government also faced criticism for prosecuting journalists and activists using colonial-era laws.

While there was progress in some areas, the military continued to hold a quarter of parliamentary seats and controlled key ministries including defence, home affairs and border affairs.

In August 2018, Ms Suu Kyi described the generals in her cabinet as "rather sweet" and Myanmar's democratic transition, analysts said, appeared to have stalled.

The 2021 military coup came as the country was facing one of South East Asia's worst Covid-19 outbreaks, putting new strains on an already impoverished healthcare system as lockdown measures devastate livelihoods.

The coup triggered widespread demonstrations and Myanmar's military has cracked down on pro-democracy protesters, activists and journalists.

In December 2021, Ms Suu Kyi was found guilty of inciting dissent and breaking Covid rules in the first of a series of verdicts that could see her jailed for life. UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet called it a "sham trial" that would only "deepen rejection of the coup".

Ms Suu Kyi faces 11 charges in total and denies them all.

Yet Ms Suu Kyi remains popular. A 2020 survey by the People's Alliance for Credible Elections, a watchdog, found that 79% of people had trust in her - up from 70% the previous year.

Derek Mitchell, former US Ambassador to Myanmar told the BBC: "The story of Aung San Suu Kyi is as much about us as it is about her. She may not have changed. She may have been consistent and we just didn't know the full complexity of who she is.

"We have to be mindful that we shouldn't endow people with some iconic image beyond which is human."