High-Profile Political Prisoners


Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Burma’s independence and national hero General Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947. She was educated in Burma, India and England. While studying at Oxford University, she met Michael Aris and they married in 1972.

Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 and joined the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD), where she played a highly visible role in calling for freedom and democracy. In August 1988, thousands of people took to the streets to protest. The military regime responded with force, killing thousands.

Losing its grip on power, the regime was forced to call a general election in 1990. Suu Kyi and other politicians were detained during the campaign. In spite of her house arrest, Suu Kyi’s NLD won 82 per cent of seats in parliament. The regime refused to recognise that the people had spoken and instead started to jail its political opponents.
On March 27, 1999, while Suu Kyi was under house arrest, her husband died of cancer. He had petitioned the regime to allow him to visit Suu Kyi one last time, but they denied his request.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Over the next two decades, Suu Kyi spent 13 years under house arrest. She has won numerous international awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and has called on people around the world to ‘Please use your liberty to promote ours.’

Ma Su Su Nway

Labour activist Ma Su Su Nway first came to the attention of the authorities when she protested against local officials forcing her and other villagers to build a road without pay. In 2005, she won a historic court ruling against local government officials when she filed a complaint that allowed the reporting of labour rights abuses to the International Labour Organisation. In what was a first in Burma, the judge sentenced the village headman and his deputy to eight months jail under a 1999 law banning the use of forced labour.

However, Su Su Nway’s historic victory would come at a price. She was charged with defaming the village’s new chairman, tried and sentenced to 18 months in the notoriously tough Insein Jail. Su Su Nway has a heart condition that needs medication. After nine months and intense lobbying from the international community, she was released. She then spent the best part of the next year in and out of jail for various protests.

In early 2007, Su Su Nway was detained for three weeks for holding a prayer vigil for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. After serving three weeks she was taken to hospital for treatment for her heart condition. In the August 2007 protests against rising prices, she took to the streets again and narrowly escaped injury and arrest when state-sponsored thugs attack her group.
Su Su Nway went into hiding, but continued to speak out and told a The Irrawaddy reporter, ‘We held the demonstrations not only for us but for all people, including those who beat us and tried to arrest us, including the police.’

She remained in hiding throughout the September crackdown, only emerging to lay flowers at the spot where Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai was shot dead by soldiers. She was arrested on November 13, 2007, when she attempted to put up an anti-government poster near the hotel where senior UN official Paulo Pinheiro was staying. The poster read: ‘Oppose those relying on China, acting as thieves, holding murderous views’.

A year later, Su Su Nway was sentenced to 12 years and six months, later commuted to eight years and four months. She is serving her sentence in the remote Kale Prison, 680 kilometres from Rangoon.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief