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Suu Kyi: 'I just didn't know how to give up'

Ann Curry, NBC News Special Correspondent

NEW YORK – Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was one of the world's most famous political prisoners until her release two years ago.

After 15 years under house arrest, NBC News’ Ann Curry asked her Friday what her message is to other people all over the world struggling for freedom?

“It's the same struggle for everybody everywhere; because unless we are free we can't really realize our own potential. And if we can't realize our own potential we are like a crippled tree. It would be a stunted growth,” Suu Kyi replied.  

Now on a 17-day coast-to-coast tour of the United States, earlier this week Suu Kyi met President Barack Obama at the White House and received the Congressional Gold Medal for her long fight for democracy in a country ruled by army generals since 1962.

She sat down with Curry on Friday morning and discussed her emergence from house arrest, her new political role in Myanmar and what kept her going all those years.

'I just didn't know how to give up'
During her years under house arrest in the country also known as Burma, Suu Kyi was separated from her family, and unable to see her husband, British academic Michael Aris, before his death from cancer in 1999. Suu Kyi was released in late 2010 and has since joined hands with members of the former ruling junta that detained her to push ahead with political reform.

Curry asked her what sustained her over all those years?

“Well, I just didn't know how to give up,” Suu Kyi said with a smile. “I never thought of needing anything to sustain me. It never occurred to me that I should give up.”

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She also credited the perseverance she learned as a child from her mother and father, Aung San, a Burmese independence hero and founder of the modern Burmese army.

“I was brought up by my mother very strictly,” she said. “She always spoke about the importance of a sense of duty and if you take up something you just don't drop it.”

She said she also felt an obligation to see her father’s dream of an independent country come true.

 “My mother always brought me up to understand that my father loved his country and of course I always knew that he didn't live to see his dream come true. He died just before we regained independence. And I suppose always I wanted to realize his dream for him.”

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Suu Kyi won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for championing democracy in opposition to the military junta that held her under house arrest for years. 

Suu Kyi's election to parliament in April helped to transform the pariah image of Myanmar and persuade the West to begin rolling back sanctions after a year of dramatic reforms, including the release of about 700 political prisoners.

As for her house arrest, she said she learned at least one important skill during that time: how to listen.

“I learned to listen very well because I listened to the radio about five, six hours a day. And this ability to listen has stayed me- has stood me in very good stead,” she said. “It helps you to understand how people's minds work. How other people think. What their point of view is.”

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She is confident in her country’s future – but did not rule out the possibility of ever running for president of Myanmar.

“No, if you're a politician you never rule out such a possibility,” she said.

Suu Kyi is currently in New York, where 40 years ago she worked for the United Nations. She'll then travel to Kentucky, Indiana and California to speak on campuses and meet Burmese expatriates.

See more excerpts from Ann Curry’s interview on NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams tonight.  

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.