It’s Not the Earrings: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Leadership of Burma

This week, one of the most remarkable achievements by one of the age’s most remarkable leaders will occur with little fanfare in the West. In Myanmar, representatives of the 135 ethnic peoples who make up the population will gather to discuss what it would mean to become a federal democracy.

Those who will attend do so with hope but also fear, for by coming they have agreed to lay down arms and be open to compromise. The most apprehensive hedged their bets, accepting the invitation only at the last minute, so it is only now that it is certain that attendance with be 100%. It is widely accepted that this is true only because all the delegates trust the person who has inspired them to be present—Aung San Suu Kyi.

Over the decades, numerous persons have tried to bring the people together this way. Generals with tanks and fighter jets failed; UN special representatives failed; US congressmen failed. Only Aung San Suu Kyi has been able to pull it off. Cynics scoff, saying Aung San Suu Kyi is effective because she is attractive, a snipe as absurd as an old on: that Gloria Steinem impacts public policy because she is tall.

For the past eight years, I have been studying Aung San Suu Kyi as part of a larger work on the approach women take to the fight for social justice and human rights. I have interviewed scores of individuals in Burma and abroad and read widely on the issues facing that people. I know that the people who are converging on Naypyidaw in coming days have put aside their general distrust of government only because they trust the woman whose invitation they received.

Granted, Aung San Suu Kyi does turn heads. She dresses her diminutive figure handsomely, weaves a fresh flower into her hair each day, and carries herself with regal bearing. But her effectiveness is a result of her fierce intelligence, deep empathy, intrepid will, fierce loyalty, and stubborn determination, not her pearl earrings.

There is nothing delicate about the task she has asked people to take on. The shadow of the recent past hovers over all. For over 50 years a military regime brutalized the people. Army units were allowed to operate with impunity throughout the country—seizing land, raping women, imprisoning individuals without charge, running elaborate neighbor-spy systems, collaborating with drug operations along their borders and effectively destroying the education and health care systems.

Even today, danger lurks. As the generals eased government over to civilian control, they wrote into the Constitution a chapter giving them the right to dissolve Parliament, and impose martial law if they perceive a threat to order. Peace and safety are not guaranteed to the attendees of what is being called the Second Panglong Conference—but the woman in whom they are investing trust earned it by suffering beside them over the years and by reaching out now.

For 15 years she endured house arrest. She withstood several assassination attempts and imprisonments and undertook a dangerous hunger strike. She stood resolute as the military executed, imprisoned or drove into exile one friend after another. Like them she was betrayed more than once by individuals in whom she placed her trust.

Yet she never relented. After her release, she traveled extensively throughout Burma, listening as the people and their leaders described their wha they had seen and articulated their fears. Always she refused to stoke hatred and refused to make promises she could not keep, continuously insisting she wants what they want—a system that will be fair. Not surprisingly, that is the focus of this conference she has convened: to find the balance of regional rights and common national rights. It will not be any easier than the conference in Philadelphia in 1789, but the fact that they have convened is an important first step. Because they trust her, there is a chance.

Among my findings about the women leaders who become powerful is that they root their ideas in empathy so profound that they move beyond fear. Once fearless, they act. Once in action, they refuse to be stopped.

This empathy, this fearlessness, this action, this determination is what makes Aung San Suu Kyi capable of pulling a people together into a nation‚not her hair style or fabric choice. In an era steeped in scorn, hers is a story worth more ink.



Susanne Dumbleton is Professor Emeritus and Former Dean of DePaul University School for New Learning. She is studying Professor Wangari Maathai as part of a book project on women as leaders for social change.