Aung San Suu Kyi’s Simple Lesson for Myanmar, and The Rest of the World

November 10, 2015, 6:42 PM UTC
Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's opposition leader and chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD), stands on a balcony at the party headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. Suu Kyi warned supporters anticipating an historic election victory over the military-backed ruling party that results are not final and they need to remain cautious. Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Dario Pignatelli—Bloomberg via Getty Images

The astounding apparent results of the Myanmar elections are a dramatic chapter in one of the great leadership stories of the past 30 years, but only a chapter; this story is far from over. The story’s theme is that crafting the right message isn’t hard at all. What can be hard beyond most human endurance is conveying the message credibly, authentically – and that’s what makes all the difference.

The story is that of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy seems to have won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections Sunday; official results will have to wait for final tallies from remote rural districts. Her message was simple: Myanmar should have true democracy, not the phony kind set up by the military dictatorship that has run the country (formerly known as Burma) since 1962 and that has led the nation into poverty, drug trafficking, and corruption while neighbors like Vietnam have boomed. It’s an obvious message that anyone except a military dictator would support. Yet Suu Kyi has had to devote most of her life to fighting for it, peacefully, and only now at age 70 has she prevailed.

Suu Kyi’s father was the liberation hero of Burma. Her husband was British, and she could have lived a quiet life in Britain or elsewhere. Instead she returned to her home country in 1988 to oppose the military junta, co-founding the NLD and resolutely rejecting all violence while promoting her simple message. She was thus a direct threat to the junta, which placed her under house address, where she remained for almost 20 years, continuing to preach her message as best she could.

Her winning of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 alerted the world to her situation and began a steady and very slow trend of building global opposition to the junta. Over the years she became an almost mythical figure to the people of her nation. When the dictators finally felt compelled to allow Sunday’s genuine elections, many voters didn’t know or care about the NLD candidate in their local district. They just knew they were voting for the junta or for Suu Kyi. The New York Times quotes a resident in an outlying district saying, “It is unbelievable. Voters don’t even know who they voted for. They only know the Lady.”

An obvious lesson is that finding the message is simple because people everywhere want mostly the same things. What continues to amaze is the power of extraordinary personal sacrifice and the message of non-violence. Myanmar is a land of many conflicting ethnic minorities, and such countries are often held together only by dictators; in addition to Myanmar, think of Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito. Yet Suu Kyi’s party seems to have won most of Myanmar’s various minority-dominated districts. It’s one of several ways in which her story is Ghandi-like and Mandela-like.

Myanmar is celebrating today, but what happens next is far from clear. This isn’t the first time Suu Kyi’s NLD party has won a clear election victory. It did so in 1990, and at that time the military prevented parliament from assembling, arrested NLD members, and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest. This time, the military has said it accepts the election results, but counting on that assurance would be unwise. For now, we’re left with the lesson that authenticity—the willingness to live the right message at any cost—is the true power of leadership. For leaders, it’s a sobering message.

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