Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi: 5 facts on the opposition leader

Written by Staff Writer at CNN San Francisco, California, Jane Thornberry.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and general secretary of the National League for Democracy, has been in charge of the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar for the past decade.

But the 65-year-old has been criticized in the West for not intervening more forcefully in an ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in the country.

Myanmar ‘is still not a democracy’

Following the military crackdown, which UN investigators have linked to crimes against humanity, 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in less than six months.

The violence has sparked international condemnation, with the United States, the European Union and the UN Security Council calling for Aung San Suu Kyi to stand down from her post of general secretary of the NLD.

Proudly heading her party since 2011, and officially Myanmar’s head of state from 2016, the former student activist, who spent most of the previous half-century under house arrest, is under immense pressure to take a firmer stance on the crackdown.

Here are six facts on her life and work:

1. Born in northern Myanmar and married to a major general

Suu Kyi was born in the colonial-era town of Rangoon, near the southern border with India, and raised in her family’s ancestral home in Yangon, the country’s largest city. She’s the daughter of Burma’s second prime minister, Myint Swe, who was assassinated in 1947.

After graduating from the State University of New York in 1968, Aung San Suu Kyi started her career as a teacher in Rangoon, before becoming a member of parliament in the 1980s, serving in several governments, including as speaker from 1999 to 2003.

2. Joined her husband’s party, the NLD

In 1991, she started a new life in Yangon, and joined her husband’s National League for Democracy, which had been banned by the military government in 1988. She had married the diplomat in 1992 and the couple had two sons, but separated in 2000, two years before he died of cancer.

The following year, she won a seat in parliament, representing the area of North Rangoon. She was made the NLD’s general secretary in 2007, before becoming Myanmar’s civilian leader last year.

3. She is Burma’s first civilian leader in decades

After 25 years of military rule, which saw Suu Kyi one of the few remaining Myanmar voices calling for a “democratic socialist” government, last year’s historic elections and her win, she became the first civilian leader in more than 50 years.

4. Her political career has been dogged by controversy

Despite being awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, Suu Kyi has faced criticism at home for not being more outspoken on human rights abuses — including a campaign for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political prisoner daughter, Aung San, who died in custody in 1995. She has also faced criticism for not speaking out on human rights issues overseas.

5. Myanmar’s best-known opposition leader

In 2005, the Obama administration chose her to be the sole Democratic presidential candidate for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

But despite the laurels, her popularity at home remains low. Earlier this year, a major trial of eight pro-democracy activists, including a Buddhist monk known as Father Agogo, rekindled a long-standing controversy with some accusing her of being an “arrogant dictator.”

6. She took on a challenge little-known among Burma’s establishment

Plagued by floods and a cholera outbreak that killed thousands of people in 2011, the country’s leaders asked her to coordinate relief efforts, a move considered highly unusual by many in Burma, since no previous senior official had ever taken on such a task.

Part of the government’s decision to turn to Suu Kyi was that she was technically foreign — she was living in exile at the time — but the move also reflected how keenly the government wanted her to step up, said Cara Smith, an associate professor at Indiana University-Bloomington.

“She’s a hero for a certain segment of the population and she is also symbolic of a desire for a more democratic and more impartial government,” Smith said.

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