A Burmese lady not for turning; AUNG SAN SUU KYI
The Saturday Profile
Harriet O’Brien is a travel writer and award-winning author. Her first book Forgotten Land, a rediscovery of Burma was published just before she joined The Independent, her second Queen Emma and Vikings, a few years after she left. She was on staff at The Independent during the 1990s and subsequently worked in Canada and then as managing editor at Conde Nast Traveller before going freelance in order to travel more. She mainly covers the UK, Europe and Asia, where she grew up.
Saturday 22 August 1998
Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's charismatic opposition leader, was taking her boldest steps yet with the ruling military. Twice during the past month, when Suu Kyi has attempted to meet her pro-democracy supporters in the provinces, her car has been blocked by soldiers several miles beyond Burma's capital, Rangoon.
Both occasions have resulted in an extraordinary standoff: Suu Kyi sitting in the heat for several days and nights, refusing to turn back. One story circulated that, with her customary resourcefulness, she caught rainwater in an opened umbrella when she ran out of water).
To take on the Burmese military - simply with words and tactics - requires determination and courage. After all, this is a regime that, since 1962, has ruined a country potentially one of Asia's richest - and repressed and even massacred its people in the process
Yet quite apart from her steely will and charisma, Suu Kyi has an inheritance that is the stuff of legends: her father, Aung San, was the creator of modern Burma - and the Burmese army.
It would be difficult to over estimate the importance of Aung San in both the recent history of Burma (renamed Myanmar by the army in 1989), and in the Burmese national psyche. Looking like Yul Brynner, he was a quixotic figure who fought the British and the Japanese to secure Burma's independence.
In an 1984 essay on her father Suu Kyi wrote: "For the people of Burma, Aung San was the man who had come in their hour of need to restore their national pride and honour" - words that have a fitting resonance with her own situation today. Yet she never really knew him. He died when she was just two years old, assassinated with six members of his constituent cabinet by a political rival on the eve of independence in 1947.
Suu Kyi grew up surrounded by this legend: her father's face on every bank note, his picture hung in every school and most public buildings across the country.
She was one of three children in a family that suffered more than its share of tragedy. Her youngest brother drowned in a garden pond at the age of eight. Her surviving brother, Aung San U, lives in the US now, and according to recent rumour is being wooed by the military, who want him to return to Burma and oppose his sister.
It is possible Aung San himself envisaged a political future for at least one of his children. The fact that they were all named after him is significant - and extremely unusual, in Burma, where are no family names. People acquire their names according to astrology, allowing little scope to reflect even kinship ties.
Aung San Suu Kyi's name, however, also incorporates an element of her mother's, Khin Kyi. She was a shrewd, robust woman a deft mover herself in the field of Burmese politics.
Khin Kyi was a nurse when she met and married Aung San during the Japanese occupation. After his death she became increasingly involved in the government of the country and, among other social welfare appointments, served as minister of health. In 1960 she was appointed Burmese ambassador to India, and Suu Kyi left her convent school in Burma for Delhi: she was not to live in her own country again for 28 years.
After the coup which brought military rule to Burma (under General Ne Win) in 1962, Khin Kyi remained in Delhi. She retired shortly afterward and chose to distance herself from politics, living in semi-seclusion at her home on University Avenue in Rangoon. The same house in which, years later, Suu Kyi was held in enforced seclusion under house arrest.
Suu Kyi, meanwhile, finished her school education in Delhi then entered Oxford where she studied PPE at St Hugh's College. It was the Swinging Sixties, but her student days were full of gentle propriety: she drank alcohol just once, and worked hard. No stranger to the world of politics, she later worked for the UN in New York. In 1972 she married a British academic, Michael Aris (now a specialist in the study of Tibetan peoples). The couple had met as students in the mid-Sixties through Suu Kyi's guardians in England, the Gore-Booth family (the late Lord Gore-Booth was British ambassador in Burma during the Fifties and British High Commissioner in India during the Sixties). From 1972 until 1988, Suu Kyi's life revolved largely around academia and motherhood, punctuated by visits back to Burma.
At first she joined her husband in Bhutan where he was employed by the government of the tiny Himalayan kingdom. The new family later settled in Oxford - where Suu Kyi studied and worked in the oriental department at the Bodleian Library. During the Eighties she became a visiting scholar at Kyoto University in Japan, but in 1988 - as she was about to commence her postgraduate thesis at London's School of Oriental and African Studies when her mother suffered a stroke. Suu Kyi rushed to Burma, and has never left the country since, knowing she would be unable to return. A striking antithesis to conventional exile.
In Rangoon that summer she nursed her mother against a backdrop of mounting political tension. In August a national strike was declared and the military government was forced to step down. Her mother survived for several months, but Khin Kyi was only dimly aware of Burma's mass movement for democracy and the bloodshed and violence with which it was crushed. She died in December 1988, after the military had resumed control.
Suu Kyi, meanwhile, found herself thrust into the limelight by her father's name. Outwardly, her entrance into Burmese politics was as sudden as it was dramatic. But she has always hinted that she had an inkling it might happen - and when she married she made her husband promise that he would not stand in her way if she felt she had to return to Burma.
Ten years ago this week, she made her first public appearance. Half a million people turned up at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon to hear Aung San's daughter: "People have been saying... that I know nothing of Burmese politics. The trouble is I know too much. My family knows best how complicated and tricky Burmese politics can be and how much my father had to suffer on this account," she said. The crowd's applause was deafening.
With a number of disabused ex-military officers she formed the NLD - one of hundreds of political parties launched when the military agreed to a general election. She embarked on a tireless campaigning trail, taking the message of democracy across Burma despite a ban on gatherings of more than five people.
The NLD quickly became the most popular party in Burma, and people flocked to hear Suu Kyi, while the military did their utmost to blacken her name - making particularly invidious remarks about her marriage to a foreigner. And, shortly after she publicly criticised General Ne Win (who by then had retired but remained a shadowy influence). Shortly afterwards, on 20 July 1989, she was arrested and placed under custody in her own home.
During the six years of her house arrest, hundreds of fellow NLD members were given jail sentences; her party won the general election overwhelmingly; and she was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
When she was freed in July 1995, the mood was electrifying - both within Burma and throughout the world beyond. No one doubted that the struggle for democracy would continue to be rough going, but the expectations were that Suu Kyi's release heralded a new dawn for the 50 million people of Burma.
Since her release she has faced enormous problems with cheerful resilience - not least of those difficulties is that for eight years the military has refused to honour the elections that should have brought the NLD to power. Recently there has been much concern about the state of her health: she is now 53, and the constant struggles of the last 10 years have taken their toll.
It has also been tough going rebuilding her shattered party in the face of Military Intelligence spies. And despite the omnipresent soldiers posted at her gate, until November last year she held weekend meetings for her supporters. She would stand on a podium behind her garden gate speaking to thousands who braved the risk of imprisonment by gathering in the road outside her house.
Her speeches took on a flavour of Gandhi, and dwelt on moral issues rather than following a party political agenda. She also frequently had the crowds in stitches: when speaking in Burmese (a tonal language which allows much scope for puns) Suu Kyi's sense of humour becomes especially apparent. But the meetings became impossible to hold when the military blocked the road in order to prevent what they described as "unrest".
Meanwhile the junta has persistently refused to commence a dialogue with her. She has been stymied at every turn. So much so that recently a few of her frustrated supporters have questioned her tactics. Some of the most poignant words have come from her former aide, Ma Thanegi, who herself spent three years in Burma's notorious Insein Prison and in February this year wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review: "[Aung San Suu Kyi's] approach has been highly moral and uncompromising, catching the imagination of the outside world. Unfortunately it has come at a real price for the rest of us."
Other supporters have been particularly concerned over her insistence that she should be present at any meeting between the NLD and the military although Khin Nyunt, head of Military Intelligence, has at times been willing to start dialogue with other party members. Some even question her call on foreign governments to impose sanctions on Burma (the US imposed investment sanctions on the country in April last year). But for her this is one of the fundamental issues: "What we want are the kind of sanctions that will make it quite clear that economic change in Burma is not possible without political change," she said in a video smuggled out to the European Parliament.
Meanwhile her personal communications also remain difficult. Suu Kyi's husband has not been granted a Burmese visa since Christmas 1995. The last family member she saw was her youngest son who was allowed a visit last autumn. It is an enormous personal sacrifice that she has made - will Burma prove worthy of it?
Origins: Born 19 June 1945, in Rangoon, capital of then Burma, now renamed Myanmar.
Vital statistics: Aged 53. Married to Michael Aris in 1972. Two sons, Alexander, 25, Kim, 22.
Influences: Her father, Aung San, a Burmese national hero who was assassinated when she was two years old.
Religion: Buddhist. Recently became a strict vegetarian.
Admires: India and Kipling.
Career: Student and teacher in politics until her mid-forties when she became opposition leader in her home country.
She says: "I would prefer not to remain in politics if I can avoid it."
Critics say: She could have struck up a constructive dialogue with government. Instead she chose the opposite.'
Her gesture: Refusing to move from her car when stopped, or to eat until prisoners are released.
Their gesture: Sending her a beach umbrella (and a portable loo) as if she was on holiday.
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