Aung San Suu Kyi: A Buddhist Hero

Aung San Suu Kyi is another striking example of the intersection between religious and political values in the Theravada Buddhist countries of South East Asia. Aung San Suu Kyi was born in 1945, as the daughter of Burma’s national hero: General Aung San. He was the leader of the Burma’s liberation movement in World War II, who was assassinated in 1947, just after the end of the Second World War and just when Burma was going to receive its independence from British and Japanese domination.

A Symbol of Democracy

Aung San Suu Kyi was educated in Rangoon, Delhi and Oxford. She settled down to raise a family in Oxford. He married an Englishman, had two sons and was living a rather comfortable life as an academic in England, quite far away from all the concerns of Burma and South East Asia.

Her mother became ill. She went back to visit her mother in 1988, to offer her some companionship. Just during that time, the military government in Burma had declared the possibility of an election. As the daughter of the discrete hero of Burmese national liberation movement, she was drawn naturally into the movement for democratic reform. Eventually, she became the symbol of that movement.

Despite being placed under house arrest, her movement won a colossal election victory in May 1990. The military government dismissed the results of the election and imprisoned its leaders. Aung San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest since 1990 in Rangoon but he has continued to speak out in favor of the democratic movement.

In 1991, she was given the Nobel Peace Price for what the Nobel Committee called her “unflagging efforts for democracy, human rights and ethnic reconciliation by peaceful means”.

A Buddhist Political Philosophy

Aung San Suu Kyi’s political philosophy seems to be pretty simple but there is force and eloquence in her words as there was in the teaching of the Buddha. Simple and strong words. One of his most famous speeches is called simply “Freedom from Fear”. The speech begins by saying “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

Near the end of the speech, after she had explored this theme for a while, she refers to Mahatma Gandhi’s statement that the greatest gift for an individual or a nation is fearlessness, the absence of fear from the mind. When Gandhi talked about the gift of fearlessness, he was doing something in which he was very skillful at, he was referring to an ancient practice of the Buddha.

She said that fearlessness may be a gift, as Mahatma Gandhi said, but perhaps more precious is the courage that is acquired through endeavor, through your own efforts, courage that cultivates the habit of refusing let fear dictate your actions. As you read these words, you can see how Aung San Suu Kyi’s career brings together modern democratic values and the fundamental Buddhist values of courage, patience, tolerance and non-violence. It is a powerful mix that should draw the attention of anyone who thinks Buddhist values belong only in the monastery. Here they play an active role in political life, as they have in the Buddhist tradition all the way through its history, from the time of Ashoka to the present.

This article is part of the series about Theravada Buddhism.

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