To her devoted followers, Aung San Suu Kyi is simply“The Lady,” a powerful symbol of resistance. The leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement spent 15 of the past 22 years under house arrest, in near-solitary con-finement, unable to communicate with the country’s people, who have been under military rule since 1962. When Suu Kyi’s party won 59 percent of the vote in 1990, the military junta nullified the election and quickly isolated her. Even after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Suu Kyi, now 65, was kept under house arrest, separated from her two sons and not even allowed to speak by phone with her husband as he lay dying. In November 2010—after a sham election that maintained military control—Suu Kyi was finally freed. But more than 2,000 remain in jail, and despite international sanctions, the country’s brutal regime is protected by China. Here, Suu Kyi talks about how she got through her darkest days.
➤ You’ve been under house arrest three times, for a total of 15 years. Did you ever feel psychologically broken down?
The first six years, I was very much alone in the house. In a way, they threw me into the deep end. That made me adjust very quickly to living alone. A lot of it has to do with how you discipline your mind. As I’m a Buddhist, I meditate. But it was also everyday disciplined living that helped me. I always remembered I was in my own home and that my colleagues in prison were having a much worse time. I felt I had to be strong for them.
➤ You’ve said, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those that wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Have you ever feared for your life? No. It is not something I’ve thought of very much, not because I don’t value my life; it’s not the sort of thing that weighs on my mind. I think of life as each day to be gone through, and whatever I have to do today is what I concentrate on. I don’t think about what might happen.
➤ You were released after the 2010 elections that kept the authoritarian regime in power. Now that you are free, what’s next?
What’s next is to make the whole world understand that what we need is an inclusive political process. I think the world needs to look hard at how the elections are conducted.
➤ How do you feel about the sacrifice of your personal freedom? Was it worth it?
I feel very embarrassed when people refer to my “sacrifice.” I chose what I wanted to do, so there is no reason why I should look upon that as a sacrifice. I am of course very, very gratified that people all over the world have responded to our cause with support.
➤ What did you feel when you found out you’d won the Nobel Peace Prize?
I had a radio, and I heard on the BBC News that I was on the short list. So it didn’t come as a total surprise. What I felt was, “Oh, so I did win it!” I know it sounds very low key, but it is very low key when you’re on your own. News like that somehow seems a little distant.
➤ Would you describe the condition of the people of Myanmar [formerly Burma] today and the condition of its political prisoners?
The basic needs of political prisoners are not met. By basic needs, I mean food, water, clothing and health care. The great majority of our prisoners come out with their health wrecked beyond repair. They are not fed even a fundamental diet. There is also injustice within the prisons. There is maltreatment. There is torture.
As for the people at large, the economic situation is very bad. And while there is a political move to blame it all on sanctions, international financial institutions say very clearly that this is largely due to [government] mis-management.
➤ Tell us about the drawings you did while under house arrest, which have been printed on note cards to raise money for your projects.
I did them on the computer—partly for fun, partly to familiarize myself with the computer. I had great fun trying out all sorts of things, and I learned that if you have good programs, you can do everything without a teacher!