Aung San Suu Kyi: The Oxford student who became Myanmar state counsellor

Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in 2015 when her party clinched a landslide election win in Myanmar – but six years later, she has been detained in a military coup.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate endured years of house arrest and harassment by military rulers while continuing her non-violent campaign to unseat them and usher in the first civilian government in more than five decades.

Ms Suu Kyi, now 75, was born on June 19 1945 in Rangoon – now Yangon – in Burma – now Myanmar – and went on to become a symbol of human rights and freedom.

Military coup in Myanmar
Military coup in Myanmar

But her reputation suffered due to her response to the crisis that hit the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, with many disappointed that she did not do more to uphold human rights.

Following studies abroad, including at Oxford University, Ms Suu Kyi returned home in 1988 and was among the founders of the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, she opposed all forms of violence and called on the military leaders to hand over power to a civilian government.

The aim was to establish a democratic society in which the country’s ethnic groups could cooperate in harmony, according to her profile on The Nobel Prize website.

Aung San Suu Kyi UK visit
Aung San Suu Kyi UK visit

Ms Suu Kyi, daughter of the liberation movement leader Aung San, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while still under house arrest in 1991 for her peaceful struggle against the regime, and momentum grew worldwide for her release.

But she was not freed from detention until 2010, after remaining under house arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years from her arrest in July 1989.

In 2015, Ms Suu Kyi’s political party, the NLD, won in general elections which were the first to be held openly in the country since 1990.

The military kept significant power under the constitution, but the position of state counsellor was created for Ms Suu Kyi to lead the government.

Her two sons’ British citizenship prohibited her from becoming president because of the country’s military-era constitution.

In November 2020, the NLD was declared the victor of Myanmar’s election in a result that saw Ms Suu Kyi return to power for a second five-year term.

Aung San Suu Kyi visit
Aung San Suu Kyi visit

But independent rights groups have criticised the disenfranchisement of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority and cancellation of the vote in certain areas, including the Rakhine province.

Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape what Myanmar’s military has called a clearance campaign following an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group in Rakhine state.

Myanmar’s government has denied accusations that security forces committed mass rapes and killings and burned thousands of homes.

Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director, said that in her first term as Myanmar’s de facto head of state, it was “shocking to see how little Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was willing to do to improve the human rights situation”.

In December 2019, Ms Suu Kyi defended the military in a case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, denying it had committed genocide.

Little over a year later, on February 1 2020, an announcement on military-controlled Myawaddy TV on the morning the country’s new Parliament session was to begin, said there will instead be a new election at the end of a one-year state of emergency.

Amnesty International said the arrest of Ms Suu Kyi, senior officials and other political figures was “extremely alarming”.

Ms Suu Kyi read philosophy, politics and economics at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, between 1964 and 1967, and spent much of the 1980s living in the city with her husband, Tibetan scholar Michael Aris, and their two sons, Kim and Alexander.

During her long campaign for democracy, she was awarded the freedom of the city in 1997, an honour she accepted in person in 2012.

But in 2017 she was stripped of the award when councillors on Oxford City Council took the “unprecedented” step amid widespread concern about her lack of action in dealing with the suffering of the Muslim Rohingya population.

The snub came after her portrait was removed from St Hugh’s College.