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Bush: Suu Kyi's Long Journey to Freedom

February 11, 2013 by Laura W. Bush

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

As Congress honors Burma's opposition leader, the people she inspired world-wide are working and sacrificing for democracy.


On Wednesday, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will enter the U.S. Capitol. She will pass by statues honoring many of our nation's defenders of freedom and liberty and make her way to the soaring rotunda, where she will receive the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the two highest civilian awards given by the United States. It is a journey that many never expected her to make. Ms. Suu Kyi's life and story are powerful reminders of why we must not give up on the causes of freedom and liberty.

In May of 2008, when my husband, President Bush, signed the legislation awarding her medal, Ms. Suu Kyi was living under house arrest inside Burma. Her crime? She had led a democratic opposition party against the ruling military junta and had the courage to stand for parliamentary elections in 1990, when her National League for Democracy won in a landslide.

She spent much of the next two decades under various forms of house arrest or restricted movement. Repeatedly denied the most basic rights of free speech and free assembly, she also was forcibly separated from her children and her husband. The ruling Burmese junta even blocked her cancer-stricken husband from seeing her before he died. She missed valuable years of her sons' lives.

Yet through it all, Ms. Suu Kyi never wavered in her belief that Burma deserved a democratic process, where all voices might be heard. For more than two decades, she has remained a valiant and steadfast voice for freedom and for the Burmese people.

Ms. Suu Kyi has long had many international supporters who both publicly and quietly pressed Burma's ruling junta for her release. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Over the past decade, I and others took our support public, hoping that greater public pressure might convince the country's rulers to relent.

They did not, and some observers began to question whether the cause of freedom in Burma was lost. After tens of thousands of Buddhist monks peacefully protested during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the ruling junta unleashed harsh beatings on the protesters and doubled the number of political prisoners to 2,100, according to Human Rights Watch. Later Ms. Suu Kyi was subjected to a show trial on the pretext that a Westerner had illegally visited her. But she never faltered. To the foreign diplomats allowed brief glimpses of her trial, her words were, "I hope to meet you in better times."

The light of hope was never fully extinguished inside Burma. In 2007 and 2008, President Bush expanded economic and financial sanctions against the Burmese regime, curtailing imports and exports and restricting the ruling junta's access to wealth, including blocking imports of Burmese rubies and jade in which they trafficked. These sanctions were continued by President Obama.

Thanks to the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and the BBC, the people of Burma knew that they were not forgotten. Like the Cold War dissidents in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, they could draw strength from every mention of their plight and every expression of faith in their cause and in their future. By August 2011, the political dam had burst, and Burma began to reform.

Today, Ms. Suu Kyi is a member of Burma's parliament and a leading voice for democratic values and reform in her country. The reforms in Burma are still fragile, but with each day they are harder to turn back. The cause that so many once thought hopeless is now full of promise.

Ms. Suu Kyi's story is one of the great stories of our time. She spoke via Skype last May at the launch of the George W. Bush Institute's Freedom Collection. In the audience was Rev. Bob Fu, a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, who now lives in exile in Midland, Texas, and labors on behalf of dissidents and religious prisoners in China. As Ms. Suu Kyi talked of never giving up, tears ran down Bob's face. He and other Chinese human-rights defenders have long looked upon Ms. Suu Kyi as an inspiration. And now their inspiration is free.

The next generation of Aung San Suu Kyis is out there, working and sacrificing for freedom. As she receives the Congressional Gold Medal Wednesday afternoon, they will be watching and listening. They will hear of freedom's enduring support—and they, too, will have hope.

Mrs. Bush is former first lady of the United States.


Laura W. Bush
Laura W. Bush

Laura Bush, former First Lady of the United States, is an advocate for literacy, education, and women’s rights. After leaving the White House, President and Mrs. Bush founded the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas. The Center is home to the Bush Presidential Museum and Library and the George W. Bush Institute, a public policy center established to advance human freedom, economic growth, education reform, and global health.

Today Mrs. Bush pursues her work on global healthcare innovations, and empowering women in emerging democracies through the George W. Bush Institute. She serves as the Chair for the Bush Institute’s Women’s Initiative, guiding the Institute’s programs to advance economic opportunity, good health and human freedom for women and girls. Women’s Initiative programs are training women leaders in Egypt, raising awareness of Afghan women’s progress and plight, and convening African first ladies, government officials and public-private partnerships to invest in women’s health to strengthen Africa.

Laura Bush is a leading voice for spreading freedom and promoting human rights across the globe. For more than a decade, she has led efforts through the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council to protect the hard-earned rights of women in that country. As First Lady, she made three trips to Afghanistan and in 2001 she delivered the President’s weekly radio address – a first for a First Lady – to direct international attention to the Taliban’s oppression of women.

Long a supporter of the people of Burma, in 2006 Laura Bush hosted a roundtable discussion on Burma at the United Nations headquarters in New York. After Cyclone Nargis devastated the country in May 2008, she held an unprecedented press conference in the White House Press Briefing Room and urged the ruling junta to accept international aid. She then traveled to the Thai-Burma border, where she met with Burmese refugees. In 2012, Mrs. Bush helped to bestow the Congressional Gold Medal to Burmese opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The legislation for the medal, signed by President Bush, had been awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi in 2008 when she was under house arrest.

As First Lady, Mrs. Bush advocated the importance of literacy and education to advance opportunity for America’s young people and to foster healthy families and communities. She highlighted the importance of preparing children to become lifelong learners, convening in 2001 a White House Summit on Early Childhood Cognitive Development. Since 2003, she has served as the Honorary Ambassador for the United Nations Literacy Decade. Laura Bush visited schools and met with students in nations from Afghanistan to Zambia, with a particular focus on the education of girls and women. Mrs. Bush worked with the Library of Congress to create the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. in 2001. The National Book Festival continues to this day and annually attracts more than 120,000 Americans. The Texas Book Festival in Austin was founded in 1996 by Mrs. Bush while she was First Lady of Texas. At the Bush Institute in Dallas, President and Mrs. Bush’s Education Reform initiative works to improve student achievement through effective school leadership, middle school transformation, and the use of accountability.

Because heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women, in 2003 Laura Bush partnered with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to launch The Heart Truth campaign and the Red Dress project. The Heart Truth campaign aims to raise awareness among women about their risk for heart disease. In 2006, she helped launch the first international partnerships for breast cancer awareness and research. As First Lady, she visited countries in Europe, the Middle East, Central and South America to support programs that help women detect breast cancer early so they can seek treatment when it has the best chance of success. Mrs. Bush has visited more than a dozen countries to support the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the President’s Malaria Initiative. Today through the Bush Institute, Laura and George Bush continue their work to promote women’s health through Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, a health initiative that adds the testing and treatment of cervical and breast cancer to PEPFAR in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mrs. Bush is the author of the bestselling memoir, Spoken From the Heart, and bestselling children’s book, Our Great Big Backyard. She serves on many boards, including the National Advisory Board for the Salvation Army, the Council for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Board of Trustees for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Laura Bush was born in Midland, Texas, to Harold and Jenna Welch. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Southern Methodist University and a master’s degree in library science from the University of Texas. She taught in public schools in Dallas, Houston and Austin and worked as a public school librarian. She served as First Lady of Texas from 1995 to 2000.

President and Mrs. Bush are the parents of twin daughters: Barbara, married to Craig Coyne, and Jenna, married to Henry Hager.  The Bushes are also the proud grandparents of Margaret Laura “Mila” and Poppy Louise Hager.  The Bush family also includes two cats, Bob and Bernadette, as well as Freddy the dog.

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