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Art and Images in Psychiatry
July 2012

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: Freedom to Lead

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(7):657-659. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2012.106

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 subjected to it.—Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.1(p180)

Artists have long used art for patriotic purposes to signify important historical events. Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware2 signifies hope and courage in the face of adversity, and Eugene Delacroix's Marianne is a French national symbol and allegory for liberty and freedom. Conversely, in Soviet Russia and communist China, socialist realist art was used to reify and idealize the totalitarian leader and glorify his accomplishments; in America, Diego Rivera used socialist realism to promote a communist political agenda, when he added Vladimir Lenin to his mural, Man at the Crossroads, in the Rockefeller Center in New York.3

Shepard Fairey (born 1970), American. Cover: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 2009. Screen print.

Contemporary graphic designer and illustrator Shepard Fairey (born 1970) builds on the work of pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to draw attention to contemporary social issues.4 He uses his signature graphic style to make statements about hope, war and peace, political corruption, global warming, personal empowerment, and personal responsibility. His Hope poster became a cultural phenomenon in the 2008 US presidential election and is now in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. In Myanmar,5 indeed worldwide, the face of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has come to signify the struggle for democracy. Fairey's poster (thumbnail) based on his drawing of her (cover) illustrates the advocacy that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi embodies and brings attention to her enduring fight for democracy. On it, her smiling and colorful image is illuminated with a sunburst. She is shown with the dove of peace prominently displayed on her clothing. The top of the poster (thumbnail), completed when she was under house arrest, reads “FREEDOM TO LEAD,” and captions on the sides emphasize support for human rights and democracy. Her release from house arrest in 2010 has allowed her to lead, to focus on human rights and on reconciliation between ethnic peoples and the government, and to advocate for democracy.

Thumbnail: Poster, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: Freedom to Lead. 24 × 36 in (61 × 91 cm). Artwork courtesy of Shepard Fairey/Obeygiant.com. Reproduced with permission from Shepard Fairey and Jack Healey, Human Rights Action Center, Washington, DC.

In 1990, the official name of the country long known as Burma was changed to Myanmar by the military junta. Both names have been used interchangeably throughout the country's history, with Burma being the more colloquial name and Myanmar a more formal literary designation. Before 1990, Burma was used internationally, and Burma was the name used at independence in 1948. Internationally, Myanmar is increasingly used to refer to the country. The US government continues to refer to the country as Burma, but the United Nations (UN) refers to it as Myanmar.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament in Myanmar on April 1, 2012. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in the parliamentary by-elections called to fill parliamentary seats vacated when members of parliament elected in 2010 were promoted to other government positions. It was a significant turnabout for the 66-year-old democracy advocate who had endured house arrest for 15 of the previous 21 years (1989-2010) under the military junta. She was vilified by the government until just months before the election, when merely displaying her picture in public might lead to arrest, yet, in this election campaign, it was displayed everywhere—on posters, T-shirts, and hats. Because she is named after her father Bogyoke (General) Aung San, the hero of Burmese independence, to avoid public association with the aura of his name, his image too had been pushed into the background with the rise of her influence in the prodemocracy movement. His picture had been everywhere. It was removed from government offices and schools and on Burmese banknotes by the military junta. During the 2012 NLD campaign, Bogyoke Aung San's image was also restored and widely shown.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's journey is a case study in nonviolent advocacy and the application of Buddhist values to the peace process. She remained under house arrest during the 2010 election because her sentence had been extended when she provided overnight shelter to an uninvited American who swam across the lake to her home. Sheltering him was illegal because, under Burmese law, all foreign overnight visitors must register with the police. In 2010, the NLD did not participate in the election. It lost its status as a registered political party when it refused to put forward candidates because it viewed the new constitution, enacted in 2008, as undemocratic. Moreover, in the 2010 election, the majority of candidates were former military officers who had “retired” to run for civilian office for this election. The new constitution guaranteed 25% of the seats in parliament to military appointees; amending it requires a 75% vote, thus guaranteeing continued control of the government by military and former military officers in a new nominally democratic government.

Numerically, the percentage of parliamentary seats that the NLD gained in the 2012 by-election is small, only 6% of the seats, but, psychologically, the victory is substantial in establishing, for the first time since military rule began in 1962, an oppositional party in parliament and in demonstrating widespread support for the NLD party. The NLD won more than 65% of the eligible votes cast, whereas the government party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won 27.5%. Surprisingly, the NLD won in Napyidaw, the capital city where government servants reside. All government servants must reside in Napyidaw and are required to be members of the government party. Ko Zayar Thaw, a popular hip-hop musician, won the seat previously occupied by the hard-line general who was promoted to vice president of the country. Ko Zayar Thaw was a leader of Generation Wave, a youth group formed in protest after the 2007 Saffron Revolution crackdown. Sentenced in 2008 to 7.5 years in prison for perceived antigovernment messages in his lyrics, he was freed earlier this year in an amnesty for political prisoners.

The 2010 election resulted in the appointment of former general U Thein Sein as president. He has pledged to promote democracy and end 50 years of autocratic military rule in an Orwellian society where antigovernment protest was repressed and freedom of assembly and of the press had been curtailed. Because of brutal military responses to student-led nonviolent protests regarding government economic mismanagement in 1988, substantial international economic sanctions were imposed. These sanctions were strengthened following suppression of protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007. U Thein Sein has sought an end to sanctions by instituting reforms and democratic change. His reforms are believed to be genuine and are supported by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Her public announcement of her willingness to work with him led to the reregistration of her party and participation in the by-election. The western international community has followed her lead and has deemed the 2012 election a turning point. Within days after the election, these results, along with the earlier freeing of many political prisoners and ongoing cease-fire agreements with ethnic groups, have garnered a striking, but cautious, international response. Contingent on continuing democratic reforms, the European Union and Canada have suspended economic sanctions, and the Japanese government has expressed a willingness to forgive 3.7 billion dollars in debt, which will allow the government in Myanmar to be eligible for international loans. The US government has suspended economic sanctions to allow investment in all sectors in Myanmar to facilitate development, investment, and trade. However, some commerce is restricted, with sanctions against Myanmar military companies, business tycoons, and generals who allegedly engaged in human rights violations and corruption. Thus, sanctions are eased by the US government but not lifted to allow continued monitoring “of those who abuse human rights, engage in corruption, interfere with the peace process, or obstruct the reform process.” Washington will maintain its arms embargo to Myanmar. The Secretary General of the UN has addressed the Burmese parliament and called for renewed UN involvement.

To understand the magnitude of ongoing change in Myanmar, it is important to review its history and the psychological effects of colonization on Burmese culture. On July 19, 1947, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's father, Bogyoke Aung San, who had negotiated independence from the British and initiated peace plans with ethnic groups, and his multiethnic Executive Council were meeting. That day, a political rival's henchmen savagely assassinated him and 6 of his cabinet ministers (including his brother U Ba Win) at the Ministerial Office Building in downtown Yangon (Rangoon).5 On December 30, 1947, 6 days before formal Burmese independence from the British, the assassins were found guilty and subsequently executed. Bogyoke Aung San's martyrdom is a pivotal event in Burmese history and is annually celebrated on Martyr's Day. Bogyoke Aung San's deputy, U Nu, who was targeted for assassination on the same day but was not found, assumed leadership as prime minister of the troubled country in 1948 and eventually established a fledgling parliamentary democracy. Throughout his tenure, U Nu was faced with civic unrest, a communist insurgency, political intrigue, and ongoing ethnic conflicts.

Burma did not join the British Commonwealth. The new government was nationalistic and sought to regain Burmese prestige and self-worth following the colonial period. Colonization had been a humiliating and demoralizing experience for the Burmese people. The Burmese monarchy had survived for centuries but succumbed to a deeply resented invasion. The British in 1885 expected to be rewarded for removing an unpopular king, but, instead, they experienced a prolonged uprising and resistance that eventually required 40 000 troops to quell. Their major errors in administering were to make Burma a province of India, to give preference to ethic groups who sided with the British, and to show limited regard for Burmese culture.6 Traditional social life was disrupted when the headmen in the villages were disenfranchised and local British-supported administrators put in their place. Being a province of India, Burmese law was now based on Indian law that had evolved from British civil law. Unrest persisted well into the 1920s when a young Eric Blair (George Orwell), whose mother's family had lived in Moulmein, Burma, arrived as a colonial policeman in the Imperial Indian police force that the British had established in Mandalay. The British police surveillance tactics that he learned in Burma, along with his later experiences of repressive governments in Spain and Russia, are proposed to have played a role in his writing the classic dystopian novel, 1984.7

The king of Burma was an absolute monarch whose rule was tempered by his Buddhist advisors. The monarch established his legitimacy by maintaining Buddhist teachings and ritual life to allow the people to make merit. The monks provided education and community ceremonies; monastic education instilled Buddhist values. The British introduced their own education system, which diminished the monks' role. When the national leader of the Buddhist order died in 1895, he was not replaced, which resulted in a leadership crisis. Knowing this long history, Prime Minister U Nu emphasized a return to Burmese traditions, with a particular focus on Buddhism during his time as prime minister. This focus eventually resulted in an extensive lay Buddhist meditation movement.8

During his more than 12 years in office, U Nu established a parliamentary democracy. However, the military was not satisfied with his civil administration and was disappointed in his failure to quell civic unrest and ethnic rebellions and his efforts to make Buddhism the state religion.

In 1962, General Ne Win ousted U Nu and led a bloodless military coup to establish a new noncommunist secular approach to government, the Burmese Way to Socialism. General Ne Win nationalized businesses, banks, and privately held land. His policies resulted in Indian nationals leaving the country en masse. Unfortunately, his economic policies resulted in Burma, once the rice bowl of Asia, advancing toward an economic decline and its current status as a “least developed” country. In contrast to the autocratic government of General Ne Win, his contemporary U Thant, who had been secretary to U Nu, became Secretary General of the UN in 1961, the year before General Ne Win's coup; he remained in office for 10 years. U Thant was a peacemaker who negotiated many crises in the 1960s. He played a vital role in the resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union. He made significant contributions to UN development programs, poverty alleviation, education, environmental protection, and health.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi emulates U Thant's diplomatic approach to peace. After graduation from St Hugh's College, Oxford, England, she worked at the UN in New York during the last 2 years of his tenure.5 Her nonviolent approach emphasizes Metta, the Buddhist virtue of universal fellowship, loving kindness, and benevolence toward others.9 When U Thant died in 1974, his body was returned to Yangon (Rangoon) for burial. General Ne Win's refusal to allow an official burial in a fitting place resulted in students stealing U Thant's body and his ceremonial burial on the Rangoon University campus on the former site of the Student Union building, which had been a seat of student protest and had been blown up by General Ne Win's troops during an earlier student demonstration in 1962.10 This led to a bloody confrontation between the students and the military. Many more confrontations were to follow. U Thant is now buried in a memorial site near the Shwedegon Pagoda.

In 1988, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar to care for her mother who was ill; she expected it to be a short visit. Soon after her arrival, however, she witnessed a brutal military crackdown on popular student and civilian demonstrations against the military government for their economic mismanagement of the country. On one tragic day, August 8, 1988, more than a thousand unarmed demonstrators were killed or arrested. The ensuing tumult led to the resignation of General Ne Win and the announcement of new multiparty elections. Unexpectedly, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, emulating her father, assumed a leadership role in the democracy movement. In 1989, the year before the planned multiparty elections, she was placed under house arrest. Despite her arrest, the newly formed NLD convincingly won the election in 1990, receiving 59% of the vote and guaranteeing the NLD 80% of delegates to write a new constitution.6,10 The military junta would not relinquish power and essentially nullified the 1990 election by arresting NLD members who called for accountability for past military actions; others among them fled the country. Eighteen years later, the 2008 constitution maintains the power of the military.

On May 2, 2012, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party took the parliamentary oath and officially joined parliament. Their agenda focuses on countrywide peace, judicial reform, and democratic constitutional change. It was a sight for which the Burmese people had been waiting for 22 years. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has long been a symbol of hope. Shepard Fairey's iconic poster (thumbnail) of her emphasizes the “freedom to lead.” Now as members of parliament, can she and her party members be leaders for genuine change and introduce a new era free from fear?

Thanks to Chris Beyrer, MD, MPH, for introducing me to the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi poster and to Ingrid Jordt, PhD, for reviewing the commentary.

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