Skip to main content

Aung San Suu Kyi and the power of unity

By Jack Healey and Dan Adler, Special to CNN
October 2, 2012 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi was presented with a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, September 19. She is known worldwide for her leadership and commitment to human rights in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The opposition leader and pro-democracy campaigner was kept under house arrest for years by the Asian country's military rulers. Take a look back at her triumphs and struggles: Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi was presented with a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, September 19. She is known worldwide for her leadership and commitment to human rights in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The opposition leader and pro-democracy campaigner was kept under house arrest for years by the Asian country's military rulers. Take a look back at her triumphs and struggles:
HIDE CAPTION
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
Suu Kyi through the years
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Burma's heroine and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi touring U.S.
  • Suu Kyi is addressing ethnic divisions in Burma, challenging world leaders to be responsible
  • Writers' online campaign for Suu Kyi united people from all political sides, famous and not
  • They say in divisive times, it's worth noting power of unity in service of democratic ideals

Editor's note: Jack Healey is the director of the Human Rights Action Center and former director of Amnesty International USA. Dan Adler is a producer and new media entrepreneur.

(CNN) -- It may be one of the greatest victory laps of our time: Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's political heroine, is touring the United States, offering proof everywhere she goes -- from the White House to the Capitol rotunda, from Columbia University to Hollywood, from the U.N. to CNN -- that she is indeed "the Lady."

In Oslo in June, she was able to give her acceptance speech, overdue by 21 years, for the Nobel Peace Prize she had been awarded when she was under house arrest in Burma. In the U.S., she's been able to receive the Congressional Gold Medal -- our highest honor -- she'd been awarded years ago; she was able to meet with the president, to sit with the U.N.'s secretary general and to meet many of the people who fought so hard to tell the world what the former military dictatorship was doing to her and to the Burmese people.

This week, she will visit Los Angeles, meeting with local Burmese and sitting down to dinner with members of the Hollywood community. And if one message rings through in all of her appearances, it is the strength of nonviolent reconciliation, the power of democratic ideals to triumph and what it really means to be willing to stand up for what one believes, whatever the cost.

World: Suu Kyi is 'global symbol' of progress, says U.N. secretary

Jack Healey
Jack Healey
Dan Adler
Dan Adler

It was Suu Kyi's nonviolent campaign against one of the most oppressive, dictatorial regimes of our times that gave hope to the oppressed Burmese people and to thousands of Buddhist monks, as she inspired politicians and leaders around the globe.

It was the strength of her spirit, the patience of her approach and the profound beauty of her soul. It was the message that one democratically elected ruler could withstand nearly 20 years of house arrest, could live with the memory of her father's assassination, could overcome the separation from her cancer-stricken husband whom she was not allowed to visit on his deathbed and could galvanize a movement of monks and a nation of people to rise up and take back their country.

Now, Suu Kyi is using her international visibility to address ethnic divisions in Burma and to challenge the rest of the globe to behave more responsibly, even as she forgives the very military leaders who kept her under house arrest for the better part of two decades. The nation is also called Myanmar, but Suu Kyi refuses to use that name because it was changed by the military junta.

So what does it mean for us, in America, during a polarizing election that seems to be bringing out the worst in all of us? Rhetoric, sound bites, culture wars and catchphrases are replacing substance, thoughtfulness and informed debate. And in the middle of it all, Hollywood, as usual, is manipulated by each side to demonize the other.

It wasn't so long ago, though, when our cultural leaders helped stand up and stand in for the most important voices of their day, raising issues all of us need to take more seriously. And, in fact, that's precisely what happened with Burma.

Just a few years ago, before most of us ever heard of Burma, before we could pronounce Aung San Suu Kyi's name and before we watched in horror as Cyclone Nargis ravaged its shores in 2008, a group of us from the creative and human rights communities banded together to raise our voices around what was happening to Suu Kyi and the Burmese.

Aung San Suu Kyi embarrassed by accolade

We were able to pull together, left and right, young and old, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and foreigners, straights and gays, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. All in a common cause of celebrating the voice of the people, the power of democracy and one remarkable woman. Called "Burma: It Can't Wait," it was an online video campaign featuring 38 spots to publicize what was happening in Myanmar and happening to Suu Kyi. The campaign has received about 25 million views.

What compelled nearly 100 of the industry's most creative and committed people -- in front of and behind the camera -- to rally together to produce an award-winning online video campaign? What led Shepard Fairey to create another of his iconic images, inspired the likes of Jim Carrey and Anjelica Huston to speak out and celebrities to travel to the Burmese border to show their support for the refugees?

And, in another example of what people united by a common cause can do, what inspired 27 of the world's most popular musical artists to contribute tracks in 2004 to an album called "For the Lady"?

One remarkable person. If you want to see why, read some of Suu Kyi's remarkable writings. "Freedom from Fear," published by Penguin, provides a great collection of them.

World: Myanmar democratic activist accepts tog congressional honor

In these hyperpartisan times, as approval ratings for Congress reach record lows, as our public discourse focuses on name-calling and our media oversimplify the most complex issues, it's refreshing to remember that many people were able to come together, from across a broad spectrum, to support a woman who had inspired Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Laura Bush, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to rally to her defense.

In a nation seemingly torn apart by divisiveness and conflict, on the eve of our presidential election, all of us should join together to champion the democratic traditions we cherish and to celebrate that much more that brings us together than divides us. As we enjoy Suu Kyi's tour of the United States, may we be reminded of the strength of her spirit and the power of unity of purpose in service of our ideals.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT