Aung San Suu Kyi: The Nelson Mandela of Myanmar?

Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?
Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?

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Story highlights

  • Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are on the brink of a new era of democracy
  • Her father, Aung San, became known as the founding father of independent Burma
  • In 1991 she won the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest; she's been compared to Nelson Mandela

(CNN)She's the living symbol of Myanmar's long struggle for democracy and the country's most loved politician. Now -- and not for the first time -- Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are on the brink of making history.

The 70-year-old former political prisoner and Nobel laureate appears to have led her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party to a resounding victory in the first freely held national elections in 25 years. Suu Kyi herself was reelected to her seat in the Kawhmu constituency in Yangon.
    Many believe the elections will bring an end to decades of military rule in the onetime pariah state -- and still more have pinned their hopes for a new era of democracy on Suu Kyi.

    The daughter of a national hero

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    The affection people have for Suu Kyi is partly due to her father, Aung San, a military officer who became known as the founding father of independent Burma (now officially known as Myanmar).
    He was assassinated by political rivals in 1947, when Suu Kyi was just 2 years old.
    Suu Kyi -- known to many today as "The Lady" -- spent much of her early life abroad, going to school in India and at Oxford University in England.
    She never sought political office. Rather, leadership was bestowed upon her when she returned home in 1988 after her mother suffered a stroke.

    Suu Kyi's move into politics

    After her mother died, Suu Kyi vowed that just as her parents had served the people of Burma, so, too, would she.
    In 1990, Suu Kyi led her newly-founded NLD party to victory in elections, but Myanmar's military annulled the results and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the next 20 years.
    But imprisonment couldn't restrain Suu Kyi's calls for democracy in Myanmar, and support for her continued to grow nationally and around the world. She has been compared to Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison fighting to end apartheid in South Africa before emerging as president.
    In 1991 she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to democratize Myanmar -- an award she wouldn't be able to pick up in person until 2012.

    Life in captivity

    She has remained a devoted Buddhist who from the beginning admired the principles on nonviolence and civil disobedience espoused by India's Mahatma Gandhi, according to Nyo Ohn Myint, a professor who serves as one of the leaders in the NLD.
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    Suu Kyi tried to break the monotony of her life under house arrest by playing her piano, another passion in her life, according to the independent Irrawaddy magazine.
    In 2007, people defiantly took to the streets to protest rising fuel costs, and the regime answered with a brutal crackdown. Suu Kyi's detention was extended again and again, and she appeared gaunt and unhappy.
    In 2010, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, part of a transition to a civilian system of government in Myanmar.
    Her party was allowed to compete in by-elections in 2012 and won dozens of seats in the parliament, including one for Suu Kyi herself.

    Why Suu Kyi can't be president

    But even if the NLD wins the election, Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency by the military-drafted constitution, which prohibits anyone with foreign family members from assuming the top office.
    Suu Kyi's late husband -- who died in England in 1999 while she was under house arrest -- was British, and her two sons have British passports.
    The constitution also says that the parliament -- which includes members of the upper and lower houses together with unelected military officials -- must choose the next president.

    Suu Kyi's 'simple message'

    But Suu Kyi has remained, as always, defiant in the face of long odds.
    "If we win and the NLD forms a government I will be above the president. It's a very simple message," she told a news conference in Yangon in early November.
    Some have said that Suu Kyi's stubborn defiance over the years became an obstacle to progress in Myanmar. But her followers remain ardent in their admiration. She has clung to her dream of democracy, peace and freedom for Myanmar's 50 million impoverished people, they say.