There is a tale, dating to the 10th century, about a Burmese King who was led to salvation and an entire kingdom saved, by a single maiden. The maiden, Bhadradevi, defied imperial orders to destroy all Buddhist monuments. For her defiance, the King ordered that she be trampled by a herd of elephants. When the maiden was placed in front of the elephants, none dared to approach her, let alone trample her. Herd after herd was placed in front of Bhadradevi, yet no elephant had the courage to tread on her. She vanquished them. She vanquished them, not with power or political prowess, but with gentleness. Thus, the maiden ushered in a new era, where Buddhism reigned supreme.
Aung San Suu Kyi emerges as a rare figure in history, at once courageous and resolute, yet gentle. Suu Kyi's tale is a tribute to the capacity of women to emerge as symbols of dignity and moral courage, at once powerful and serene.
Most interesting of all is how attached the Burmese people are to the idea of Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi not only has their adoration, she has also their respect.
In order to understand Suu Kyi's place in the hearts and mind of the Burmese, one has to understand the history of gender egalitarianism and female leadership that has existed in Burma. Historically, Burmese women were free to participate in public life. They worked side by side with the men in the rice paddies and garnered equal wages. They
participated in trade and owned large-scale businesses. In the personal realm, Burmese women were allowed to choose their mates, allowed to divorce, and entitled to half the property, upon separation.
Freedom meant more than mobility, it meant accepting responsibility. After marriage, young women stayed in their familial homes, living with generations of other women from their matrilineal line, learning to pay deference to older women and learning, likewise, to take moral responsibility for the younger women in their line.
To understand Suu Kyi's character--her unfailing belief in her own convictions, her calm assurance and quiet strength--is to understand the culmination of what centuries of freedom and responsibility can afford women.
As if history were somehow circular, one morning in 1989, Suu Kyi and a group of activists were walking along the street when a group of soldiers blocked Suu Kyi's path, aimed their rifles and threatened to fire. Suu Kyi asked the soldiers in gentle tones, to let her party pass--all the while moving forward. And as the story goes, it was just when the soldiers--the metaphorical elephants ordered to annihilate our modern-day Bhadradevi--were about to fire that a superior officer ordered his men to disperse.
The tale of Suu Kyi and the soldiers were circulated all over Burma. And although Suu Kyi was hailed as a modern-day hero, hers was a model of womanhood with which the Burmese were already familiar.