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Suu Kyi ends her fifth year under detention

Suu Kyi ends her fifth year under detention

Bertil Lintner charts the rise of Burma's pro-democracy heroine who was

detained by the ruling junta on July 20, 1989.

When the Council of the

Socialist International in May celebrated the conclusion of its meeting in Japan

with a cruise in the Tokyo Bay, some of the delegates were surprised to see an

elderly, bespectacled Asian gentleman pinning "Free Aung San Suu Kyi" buttons on

their lapels. Win Khet, a leading Burmese dissident, had seized the opportunity

to highlight the plight of the incarcerated leader of his country's

pro-democracy movement. Among those who received an Aung San Suu Kyi badge was

Cambodian Second Prime Minister, Hun Sen, who responded by saying that he would

do his best to seek her release.

Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house

arrest by Burma's military rulers on 20 July 1989 - exactly five years ago - and

there she remains, a prisoner in her home on University Avenue in Rangoon. But

she still symbolizes much of what Burma wants to be but is not: a free,

democratic and prosperous member of the world community.

Her rise to

prominence began on 25 August 1988. On that day, a large crowd gathered at the

foot of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon. People laid out bed rolls to pass the

night on; entire families squatted in circles around their evening meals. By the

next morning at least half a million people of all ages, and national and social

groups in Burmese society had come together for what would be the biggest rally

in Burma's then new-born democracy movement.

They were there well in time

to get a good viewpoint for an extraordinary event that was going to take place:

Aung San Suu Kyi, the 43-year old daughter of Burma's independence hero, Aung

San, was going to make her first public appearance. She had returned from abroad

a few weeks before at a time when the country was in the midst of political

upheaval. Student protests had led to the most serious challenge to the

iron-fisted rule of General Ne Win since he had overthrown Burma's

democratically elected government and seized power in a coup d'état in


The mood was festive, but there were several bomb-scares before the

meeting could begin by mid-morning of the 26th. Young pro-democracy students and

Buddhist monks in saffron robes formed human chains around the stage and checked

out suspicious-looking characters. The ground outside the pagoda complex was

jam-packed. Even all the roads leading up to the meeting place were full of

curious bystanders.

But, at last, a slim professorial woman made her way

through the cheering crowds. A huge portrait of her father, sometimes nicknamed

"the George Washington of Burma", had been placed above the stage alongside a

resistance flag from the struggle for independence for the then British colony

in the 1940s. She walked up to the stage amidst deafening applause and


After taking the microphone, her initial message of democracy

through unity and discipline gave way to a more personal note:

"A number

of people are saying that since I've spent most of my life abroad and am married

to a foreigner, I could not be familiar with the ramifications of this country's

politics," she said over the loudspeakers, "I wish to speak very frankly and

openly, It's true that I've lived abroad. It's also true that I'm married to a

foreigner. But these facts have never, and will never, interfere or lessen my

love and devotion for my country by any measure or degree. People have been

saying that I know nothing of Burmese politics. The trouble is I know too much.

My family know better than any how devious Burmese politics can be and how much

my father had to suffer on this account."

Hundreds of thousands of people

cheered and applauded. Her famous, almost deified father had been assassinated

by a rival politician on 19 July 1947 - barely six months before Burma obtained

its independence from Britain. The roar reached its crescendo when she

concluded: "The present crisis is the concern of the entire nation. I could not,

as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on. This

crisis could, in fact, be called the second struggle for


Most of the people who had come to hear her outside the

Shwe Dagon had probably done so out of curiosity. Virtually unknown when she

rose to speak, by the end of that day almost six years ago she had won the

hearts and the minds of her audience - and later, of an entire nation.

Aung San Suu Kyi has captured the image of a lone woman standing up,

unarmed, against the might of the Burmese army, one of the most brutal military

machines in Asia - a modern Joan of Arc.

Her background greatly

contributed to her courage. She left Burma in 1960 at the age of 15 when her

mother, Aung San's widow, was appointed Burmese ambassador to India. It was

during the most formative years of her youth that she acquired her lasting

admiration for the principles of non-violence embodied in the life and political

philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi.

She left for Britain in 1964 to further her

studies at Oxford. Three years later, she was in New York, holding various posts

at the United Nations secretariat. Her main intellectual inspiration during this

time seems to have come from the civil rights movement; in Martin Luther King's

speeches she found similarities with the ideals of Gandhi with which she already

was so keenly familiar.

In 1972 she married Michael Aris, a British

expert on Tibet who was employed as a private tutor to the Royal Family of the

Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. After their marriage, she took the post of research

officer in the Bhutanese Foreign Ministry with specific responsibility for UN

affairs. The young couple remained there for a couple of years before they

returned to England.

She had just started a post-graduate thesis at the

School of Oriental and African Studies in London when in April 1988 her mother

suffered a stroke. Aung San Suu Kyi immediately returned to Rangoon to look

after her. That was when Burma exploded with an unprecedented fury, taking

everyone, probably the Burmese themselves included, by complete surprise.

Burma's students, always at the forefront of any political movement in the

country's history, took to the streets by the tens of thousands. Millions of

older people joined them.

The protests were met with unbelievable

brutality. Police and army units opened fire, killing thousands of teenagers and

youths in their early twenties. Many more were arrested and there were credible

reports of torture and girl students having been raped in police custody.

Although it is an almost unknown movement, more people died for democracy in

Burma than in the bloody crackdown that was unleashed at Tiananmen Square in

Beijing a year later.

To placate the restive crowds, and to appease the

international community that had condemned the carnage in Rangoon, the ruling

military announced that they were going to hold "free and fair elections." Aung

San Suu Kyi, now leader of the main opposition party, the National League for

Democracy (NLD), embarked on a strenuous program, traveling to virtually every

part of Burma, her insistence on Gandhian principles of non-violent

confrontation came to play a crucial role in transforming the Burmese uprising

into a sustained and remarkably co-ordinated movement.

Burton Levin, the

then US ambassador to Burma, commented at the time "Even though she is married

to a foreigner, nonetheless she touches a chord among the whole spectrum of

Burmese life. The first time she came to my house for lunch, I had every one of

my servants just lining up. It was like, in American terms, one of these nutty

rock stars appearing at a high school. It was really something. She's got

charisma, she's bright, she knows how to speak, she's come to the


Even when the regime of the old dictator, General Ne Win,

threatened her, she continued to speak out. Eventually, on 20 July 1989, the

ruling military placed her under house arrest. Thousands of NLD workers were

arrested all over the country.

But regardless of these measures, Aung San

Suu Kyi's basic message had begun to take firm roots among the population at

large. She was the moral authority that had advocated freedom when the military

slapped martial law on the country. More informal talks had focused on the

importance of reading books, or for the people to take responsibility of their

own neighborhoods - where grassroots democracy should begin.

With Aung

San Suu Kyi muzzled, the NLD suppressed and the people fearful, the military

hoped that the elections would mean little. That was a gross miscalculation.

When the Burmese eventually were allowed to go to the polls on 27 May 1990, they

voted overwhelmingly for Aung San Suu Kyi's party. The NLD captured 392 out of

485 contested seats in the assembly. Another 50 or so seats went to allied

parties. The military-backed National Unity Party secured a mere ten


According to a Rangoon-based diplomat: "Burmese throughout the

country were often unaware of the local NLD candidate they were actually voting

for . But they all had heard of Aung San Suu Kyi. It was yes to her and no to Ne

Win and the military."

But rather than convening the assembly, the

military started hunting down the winners of the election. More than 60 NLD MPs

elect ended up behind bars. Many others fled the country or went into hiding.

For their efforts, the Burmese military was snubbed by the international

community when, in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the most prestigious of

international honors: the Nobel Peace Prize.

Aung San Suu Kyi remains

under house arrest in Rangoon, and despite recently allowing a visit by US

congressman Bill Richardson - the first by a non-family member - the military

are unlikely to release her within the foreseeable future.

An economic

mini-boom in post-coup Burma, and a refocusing of Western attention to North

Korea's nuclear sabre-rattling and other issues, have further strengthened the

Burmese military junta's hand.

However, in spite of her incarceration,

Aung San Suu Kyi remains a source of inspiration for young people throughout

Asia, a region where so-called "modern", business-oriented governments sometimes

provide economic development for their countries - but often stifle intellectual

life and suppress basic civil liberties. Even her jailers, whose grip on power

seems more secure than ever, now feel pressure to open talks with


Aung San Suu Kyi's military opponents have tried to capitalize on

her marriage to a foreigner to prove that she is "un-Burmese", the experiences

she has gained from living in different countries and cultures have provided the

guiding light for a pro-democracy movement in a country that has been cut off

from the rest of the world for decades.

She is a powerful synthesis of

East and West - not unlike the nationalist leaders who led many Third World

countries to independence after World War Two.


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