Aung San Suu Kyi’s Rise to Power Spearheads Political Change in Burma

Posted April 1st, 2012 at 12:05 pm (UTC-5)
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Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's 18-month journey from political prisoner to parliamentarian is among the most visible signs of change in her homeland, as the new, nominally-civilian government seeks to repair ties with the West.

The daughter of independence hero Aung San, who was assassinated by political rivals in 1947, Oxford-educated Aung San Suu Kyi first burst onto Burma's political landscape in 1988, when she returned from Britain. She quickly became a central figure in the country's nascent pro-democracy movement, addressing a half million people that year at a mass rally in Rangoon as the military launched a deadly crackdown on dissent.

Months later, as she campaigned, she survived the first of two assassination attempts. She also helped found the National League for Democracy party that year.

Two years later, the junta called a general election that left the NLD in control of 80 percent of parliament. But faced with marginalization, the military refused to relinquish power and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. She was also awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

During that period, she remained separated from her children and husband — the latter of whom she saw only five more times before he died of cancer in 1995. In 2003, during a brief period of freedom, she survived a second assassination attempt and was returned to house arrest.

Military rule and the arrests of thousands of pro-democracy activists brought enormous pressure from Western governments, which continued to impose a wide-range of economic sanctions. Most remain in place today.

The military government, staggered by the collective weight of those sanctions, announced in late 2010 that it would step aside and called for general elections last year. The regime also released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

Since then, the 66-year-old icon has conferred with a host of Western diplomats and dignitaries, and plotted with pro-democracy colleagues to gain a foothold in parliament.

Late last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Southeast Asian nation, and urged the new government to release hundreds of political prisoners and end ethnic violence, in return for any U.S. moves to lift sanctions. European officials voiced the same demands in visits earlier this year.

Prisoner releases have since taken place, and the government has reached tentative cease-fire deals with key ethnic rebel groupings.