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Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi

By CNN's Joe Havely

Aung San Suu Kyi calls her fight for democracy Myanmar's
Aung San Suu Kyi calls her fight for democracy Myanmar's "second struggle for independence"

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(CNN) -- Her supporters call her simply 'The Lady'.

In 1990 they turned out in vast numbers to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to become the new government of Myanmar, formerly Burma.

The result, an 82 percent landslide in favor of the National League for Democracy (NLD), took the country's military rulers by surprise.

Refusing to acknowledge defeat, the generals claimed foreigners and communists had rigged the election. In the subsequent weeks hundreds of NLD members were rounded up and jailed.

According to human rights groups, more than a thousand remain in their cells, never having been convicted of a crime.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself presented little challenge -- by then she had already been held under house arrest for several months.

Her popularity and the threat that posed to the ruling regime meant that her detention would last another five years.

During that time, in 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for what the Nobel committee described as "one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades."

Fearing that if she traveled to Norway to accept the award she would not be allowed back into Myanmar, she instead opted to stay in Yangon, remaining under house arrest.

Nine years later she was honored by U.S. President Bill Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor.

Again, leaving Myanmar to receive the award was not an option.

Leaving would end the daily restrictions on her life, but she has made clear she is not willing to abandon the struggle.

Unique heritage

Aung San Suu Kyi said she
Aung San Suu Kyi said she "could not stand by" as her country erupted in pro-democracy protests in 1988

Such dedication has won Aung San Suu Kyi widespread respect and affection both inside and outside of Myanmar.

But her popularity is based on more than her position as an opposition leader; she is also the daughter of a national icon.

Born in 1945 she is the child of assassinated Myanmar independence hero Aung San -- a man almost universally respected in the country, including the top ranks of the military.

That heritage has given her a unique position in Myanmar society, meaning that from the point of view of the ruling regime she cannot simply be locked in jail and the key thrown away.

Indeed, on occasions such as Martyr's Day she has even been invited to stand alongside the ruling generals as they honor the heroes of Myanmar independence.

Alluding to her family history she has often described her mission to bring democracy to Myanmar as "the second struggle for national independence."

It is a cause she came to lead almost by accident.

Non-violent protest

In 1988 after spending most of her life in the UK, she returned to Myanmar to care for her ailing mother.

Instead, after the brutal suppression of a pro-democracy uprising that August she found herself swept into politics, delivering a series of speeches at rallies across the country calling for democratic government.

Inspired by the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther-King she urged those opposed to the military rulers to follow a policy of non-violent protest.

Her commitment to her country was, however, perhaps most painfully illustrated in 1999 when her husband, the Oxford academic Michael Aris, became terminally ill with cancer.

Denying him a visa for a final farewell visit, the government instead suggested that Aung San Suu Kyi travel to England to visit him.

The generals had long been suspicious of Aung San Suu Kyi's marriage to a foreigner and had used it on many occasions in the rigidly controlled state media to cast doubts on her patriotism.

Fearing that if she left, she would not be allowed back and she refused to go, virtually throwing the government messenger out of her house.

In March 1999, Aris died -- the couple had not seen each other in three years.

Despite long periods of isolation and only sporadic public appearances, she continues to lead the push for change in Myanmar through dialogue and negotiation.

Confident that she retains immense popular support, her patience and belief in the righteousness of her cause have contrasted sharply with the paranoia and bullying tactics of the generals who hold power.

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