She sits mostly alone, a woman of fragile health but breathtaking courage – a solitary figure who represents the aspirations of 47 million fellow citizens of Burma and of millions living in oppression elsewhere.
She is Aung San Suu Kyi, who is to Burma what Nelson Mandela was to South Africa and Natan Sharansky was to the former Soviet Union – a symbol of hope in a land of brutality. She is a petite woman of 63, an inspiring democratic activist and Nobel Prize winner who, at this writing, faces trial on charges that seem designed to prevent her from threatening the iron rule of Burma’s military junta.
The charges against her, which come just as she is finishing a six-year home detention and which could send her to jail for another five years, arise from a bizarre incident in which a U.S. citizen swam across a lake to her beachfront property and, despite her requests that he leave, spent a night or two on the grounds. For that, the junta has charged her with violating the terms of her detention.
To its credit, Washington (along with governments in Europe and Asia) has reacted angrily to the charges, urging the junta to release Suu Kyi and more than 2,000 political opponents that it is holding.
But her travails highlight the multiple risks inherent in Washington’s efforts to improve U.S. relations with authoritarian regimes in Russia, Iran, Syria – and even Burma – at the apparent expense of human rights concerns.
In seeking such warmer relations, Washington is, not surprisingly, eschewing or downplaying efforts to assist democratic activists in their efforts to overthrow or reform unpopular regimes. That policy risks alienating hundreds of millions of people across the world who seek the freedom, democracy and human rights that America personifies and, in earlier eras, has promoted forcefully.
In some nations, Washington may miss an opportunity for change that its support could help generate. In others, the change may occur anyway, in which case Washington will find itself aligned with an unpopular and then-defunct regime.
Moreover, the issue of human rights has implications beyond the question of how people live their lives in far-flung nations. It matters for peace and stability. As Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov said, “A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors.”
Suu Kyi was born in 1945 to Aung San, a hero of Burma’s drive for independence from Great Britain and its first prime minister before his assassination in 1947; and Khin Kyi, Burma’s former ambassador to India.
After spending much of her life abroad, she returned to Burma in 1988 to visit her ailing mother, who had suffered a stroke. While there, and in the midst of a popular uprising for democratic change, she co-founded the National League for Democracy, promoting non-violent civil disobedience.
Placed under house arrest in 1989, she nevertheless led her party to overwhelming victory a year later in elections that the junta had thought it would win. The junta refused to step aside and, rather than assume the presidency, Suu Kyi remained in detention where she has spent 13 of the last 19 years.
While detained, she won the Nobel Prize in 1991, which her two sons accepted on her behalf; the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000; and many other awards. Also while there, the junta refused her husband’s request in 1999 for a final visit with her before he succumbed to prostate cancer.
The junta has offered her opportunities to leave the country, but she has always refused. She had no guarantee that the junta would allow her to return, and she would not sacrifice her work for democratic change.
Today, Suu Kyi sits in a special section of Insein Prison, home to many political prisoners, where conditions are notoriously poor, even for young people in good health. Tuberculosis, mosquitoes, other insects, oppressive heat and the lack of fresh air are among the things with which prisoners must contend.
In the days ahead, we should keep this extraordinary woman in our thoughts – and we should urge Washington to maintain its public outage – however much its calls to protect human rights may complicate its diplomatic agenda. For her continued imprisonment diminishes not just her, but us.
As President Kennedy said at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 1963, “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.”