YANGON – Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who became Myanmar's leader in 2016 following five decades of military rule, cautioned repeatedly that the country's democratic reforms would only succeed if the powerful army accepted the changes.
Her warnings proved prescient. The military detained Suu Kyi and other senior politicians on Monday and said it would rule under a one-year state of emergency.
It was a sharp halt in the tentative steps toward democracy by the Southeast Asian nation in the past decade.
Suu Kyi has spent much of her life fighting military rule. She was born on June 19, 1945, in the city now called Yangon, to charismatic independence hero Gen. Aung San, who was assassinated when she was only 2.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar, then called Burma, attained independence six months after his death. Suu Kyi’s mother, Khin Kyi, served in the post-independence Parliament, became a government minister and later was ambassador to India in the 1960s.
Suu Kyi mainly lived abroad as a young adult. She earned a degree at Oxford University in philosophy, politics and economics, and then worked for the United Nations in New York and Bhutan. She married British academic Michael Aris and had two sons.
Her homeland, meanwhile, was under the control of a military leader, Ne Win, a former comrade of her father who had seized power in 1962.
Protests against the military government had been growing before Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar in 1988 to nurse her dying mother. She was little known but soon became the face of the swelling opposition.
Defying a brutal military crackdown that by some estimates killed thousands of people, she helped found the National League for Democracy.
Placed under house arrest in 1989, Suu Kyi was detained for 15 of the next 22 years, mostly at her dilapidated lakeside home in Yangon. Even when free, she did not dare leave the country to see her husband and sons in Britain for fear the military would prevent her return. Her husband died of cancer in 1999 without her being able to visit.
In awarding Suu Kyi the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her nonviolent struggle, Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Francis Sejersted likened her not only to her father but also to India’s Mohandas Gandhi.
Her reputation for grace under fire grew during her confinement. The Myanmar public called her “The Lady,” a sign of respect and knowingly indirect, to avoid attention from the ubiquitous secret police.
The military finally eased its grip on politics, allowing elections in 2010, and eventually for Suu Kyi to hold government office.
She resumed traveling, no longer fearing the generals would bar her return. More than 20 years late, she delivered her Nobel lecture in Norway in June 2012.
Her party swept elections in 2015, but she couldn't become president because of a provision added by the military to the 2008 constitution designed to bar her from the country’s highest office. Instead, she became de facto national leader with the title of state counsellor, a position created for her.
She had no direct control over the military, which retained significant power. The pace of reform slowed. Her government freed most, but not all, political prisoners, and new arrests of journalists and activists were made under unchanged, colonial-era laws.
Critics say she helped whitewash the bloody history of the generals she replaced and made scant headway in tackling the country’s dire poverty, dysfunctional judicial system and crumbling infrastructure.
Supporters viewed her stance as pragmatic in a country where the military kept its dominance even after the country’s transition to a civilian government.
“I am concerned about how much support there is in the military for changes. In the end that’s the most important factor, how far the military are prepared to cooperate with reform principles,” Suu Kyi said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2012.
But her image as a democracy icon was most damaged by her government’s handling of abuses committed by the military against the Muslim Rohingya minority, who were driven into squalid camps by waves of killings beginning in 2012.
In 2017, the military launched a counterinsurgency operation involving mass rape, murders and the torching of entire villages. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where they continue to live in crowded refugee camps, afraid to return to a country that denies them basic rights including citizenship.
Suu Kyi repeatedly defended the military, even at the International Court of Justice, and would not speak up for the Rohingya, dismaying her global supporters.
Asked once in a BBC interview about her once-saintly reputation, Suu Kyi replied: “I am just a politician. I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no, but on the other hand, I am no Mother Teresa either. I have never said that I was. Mahatma Gandhi, actually, was a very astute politician.”