'True' Burmese Leader Suu Kyi Fights for Democracy

Turmoil and protests in Myanmar, formerly Burma, have dominated international headlines. At the center of the unrest is the question of who is the country's true leader.

Many believe Aung San Suu Kyi is the rightful leader. In 1990, she won an election, but has never been allowed to govern.

In fact, Suu Kyi now ordinarily is unable to leave her house -- though she was allowed today to meet today with a visiting U.N. envoy. She has been in and out of jail and house arrest for the past 18 years as the military dictatorship running the country will not honor her election win.

Still, Suu Kyi remains a beacon of hope for many Burmese, who believe she is their rightful leader.

International Support

It's not just the Burmese who support her. The quiet but modern icon has gathered a following around the world for her steadfast courage and unshakeable faith in democracy in the face of extreme oppression.

"She has somehow struck [the] imagination of the planet, and I think that's because she represents the best that humanity has to offer," said Sam Zarifi, of Human Rights Watch. "She's a rock star."

Famous faces like musician Bono, who wrote the song "Walk On" for Suu Kyi, and actor Jim Carrey, who posted a video about her on YouTube, have supported Suu Kyi's cause.

Political Beginnings and Tough Times

But before famous people started taking up Suu Kyi's political cause, she was a born into a political legacy. She is the daughter of Aung San, the general who helped negotiate Burma's independence from the United Kingdom.

In 1988, Suu Kyi formed her own political party, the National League for Democracy. The year proved to be turbulent one, as it was also the same time thousands were killed during pro-democracy demonstrations when the military junta, which rules today, came to power.

The change would mean difficult times for Suu Kyi. Only two years later, she beat the military junta in a landslide and was elected prime minister. But, the regime, which was threatened by her popularity, arrested her.

When she was released at one point, popular support grew so large, the government arrested her again.

Suu Kyi even was separated from her husband and young son. Yet, she never wavered.

"I believe democracy so far is the best political system we have discovered," she said at the time in a BBC interview.

Her faith and determination inspired thousands internationally and won her the Nobel Peace Prize.

But even then, she could not leave to attend the ceremony. So her family accepted on her behalf.

Family Ties

The toll on her family only became more difficult when eight years ago she made one of the most heart-wrenching decisions of her life.

Her dying husband was being treated for cancer in London, and while the government gave her leave to be by his side, Suu Kyi chose to stay in the country. She was afraid she would never be allowed to return.

"She has given up her personal freedom," Zarifi said. "She has given up he family and the entire time all she has asked for is respect for the vote of the Burmese people."

"She is one of the towering figures of our time, morally and politically speaking, probably on par with people like Nelson Mandela," Zarifi said. "She views herself, I think, as a disciple of Gandhi and the principle of non-violence. And certainly no one else alive today captures that principle as well as she does."

Despite being jailed and a sort of prisoner in her own country, Suu Kyi said her detractors have not won.

"I've always felt free because they have not been able to do anything to what really mattered," Suu Kyi said. "And once you're free inside, once you feel, 'I can accept something that happens to me as long as I am working for something right' ... then I think you are free."