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Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi has lessons for all democracies

It takes an almost religious faith in democracy to transform a dictatorship. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi lived under house arrest, or the threat of it, for two decades as she fought against one of the world’s most repressive regimes. For most of her confinement, it looked as if her efforts were bound to fail. Her ultimate success, which made her a key partner in the stunning transformation of her country, is a testament to the power of patience.

“I never thought of leaving Burma,” she recently told an audience at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “As long as there was one person in Burma who still believed in democracy, I had to stay with that person.”

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Suu Kyi’s choice is all the more striking given the alternative life she could have led. Educated at Oxford, she married a British man, and could have stayed in London with her husband and children. Instead, she formed a political party in Burma.

Analysts and historians are still trying to uncover exactly what led the Burmese government to reverse course and allow her to run for election. She won a seat in parliament in a landslide. Recently, she traveled to the United States to receive a host of awards and meet with President Obama at the White House.

Suu Kyi told American audiences that she is trying to teach her people that freedom comes with responsibilities; that voting is not just a right, but a duty; and that politics is the act of sacrificing oneself for the greater good. “I’ve always thought of myself as a politician,” she said. These are not just lessons for a fledgling democracy, but pieces of wisdom that Americans would do well to remember, too.

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