Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who has been detained by Burma’s military regime for nearly 20 years, is a true hero for our times, writes the chancellor, Gordon Brown, in this extract from his new book

In the early 1990s, I wished to invite Aung San Suu Kyi to address the Labour party conference. Of course, I knew that she would be unable to attend so I approached her husband, Michael Aris, and arranged to meet him, wondering if he might take her place. It was only as I prepared to meet him and began reading about the couple in more detail that I discovered the story of their lives together and the sheer scale of their struggle.

Indeed, the more I read, the more I wondered at Suu Kyi’s great courage; lonely and sustained, it had shaped her life and resulted in her becoming the world’s most renowned female prisoner of conscience. Facing one of the most tyrannous regimes in the world, she had demonstrated that courage by living under house arrest for most of the past two decades, far apart from the husband she loved, and from her beloved children, missing all their years of growing up.

To understand Suu Kyi’s courage we need to understand firstly her devotion to duty – and in particular, the influence of her father, Aung San, who secured Burmese independence from the British in 1948 but who did not live to see that independence come into force – and secondly, and most important of all, the strength of Suu Kyi’s underlying belief in democracy and human rights. Her courage has shown itself not in the fearlessness of impetuous confrontation, but in a strength of character rooted in passionately held beliefs – beliefs that have sustained her through years of oppression and deprivation and cruel separation from her loved ones.

For Suu Kyi, the turning point in this process occurred in the spring of 1988. “It was a quiet evening in Oxford like many others – the last day of March 1988,” her husband recalled. “Our sons were already in bed and we were reading when the telephone rang. Suu picked up the phone to learn that her mother had suffered a severe stroke. She put the phone down and at once started to pack. I had a premonition that our lives would change for ever.”

Until that day, Suu Kyi had been an academic and housewife, married to a professor, and bringing up two young sons in the tranquillity of Oxfordshire. The next day, she left England for a Rangoon in the grip of demonstrations and protests. As she tended her critically ill mother, she bore silent witness to the growing restlessness of the country’s youth.
Within a few weeks of her arriving in the city, General Ne Win’s 26-year-long dictatorial rule came to an end as he announced plans to allow the country to decide its fate in a referendum.

Pro-democracy fervour was sweeping from Rangoon across the country and with mass demonstrations drawing millions on to the streets, Ne Win orchestrated not the democratic transition people hoped for, but a military takeover and a human-rights crackdown which culminated on August
8 in what Desmo nd Tutu and Vaclav Havel have subsequently exposed in a report to the UN Security Council as a massacre of the innocents:
thousands of unarmed demonstrators – mostly students – were gunned down in the streets.

Suu Kyi had been in Rangoon only for a few weeks. She had no weapons, troops or band of followers, but she had seen at first hand the brutality of the military and she knew the fate awaiting the countless demonstrators rounded up on the streets. It was because she wanted for others in her own country the freedoms she enjoyed in the United Kingdom that at this point, the point of greatest danger, she stepped forward. Within weeks, Suu Kyi and colleagues had established the National League for Democracy (NLD) and she became its general secretary.

For me, Suu Kyi defines the meaning of courage. Once courage was seen chiefly as a battlefield virtue. In most accounts the emphasis is on the physical – physical risk, physical vulnerability or physical triumph. It has been seen as an almost exclusively male, physical attribute: courage as daring and bravado, even recklessness; indeed, in many languages, the word for courage is derived from the word for “man”. But Suu Kyi represents the power not of the powerful but of the powerless: a woman, a prisoner of conscience up against a state with one of the worst human-rights violation records in the world; a country of only 20 million people with 1,000 political prisoners, 500,000 political refugees, children as young as four in prison, and poets and journalists tortured just for speaking out.

In the collection of her writings, Freedom from Fear, Suu Kyi describes the courage that she admires the most. It is not fearlessness but conviction, a courage of the mind; not so much a momentous act of daring as a constant condition of the mind defined by strength of belief and strength of will.

Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions, courage that could be described as “grace under pressure”, grace that is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure…

For the complete text of this extract from “Courage: Eight Portraits by Gordon Brown,” please follow this link:
http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/politicsphilosophyandsociety/0,,2058069,00.html