A woman they couldn't shoot

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The Independent Online
Aung San Suu Kyi's release after almost six years under house arrest in Rangoon is as surprising as it is welcome. Only a few weeks ago, SLORC, the ruling military dictatorship, said she would not be released in the foreseeable future and until there was "calm and tranquillity" in the country, a condition that their brutal methods are hardly likely to achieve. As recently as last Saturday, the newspaper the New Light of Myanmar (Myanmar is SLORC's new name for Burma) in an article entitled "Destiny of the Nation", was implying that Dr Michael Aris, Suu Kyi's British husband, was dominating his wife, adding "And who has been dominating him? Allow Myanmar to be Myanmar in a Myanmar way. Myanmar has lived as an imperialist slave; spare Myanmar from domination of any sort of foreigner again."

Suu Kyi was the inspiration of my film Beyond Rangoon; in the film I recreated the seminal incident during her electioneering when she and her followers were stopped in their progress by a cordon of soldiers. She was told she could not pass. She walked slowly towards the soldiers. The order was given to fire - three times; none of the soldiers could bring themselves to pull the trigger and she passed through the cordon.

These were soldiers who were part of a military ethos that practised torture, rape and massacre on a massive scale. Why had they held their fire? And where had she found her courage? Several reasons. She is the daughter of the revered founder of modern Burma, General Aung San, the first president after independence, who was assassinated at the age of 32. Suu Kyi is a woman of extraordinary grace and beauty but, unquestionably, her strength derives from having conquered fear. Her philosophy is expressed in her book Freedom From Fear, in which she argues that if the Burmese people can ever conquer their fear, the army would be powerless.

She and the generals have waged a private war during these six years of incarceration. They dangled freedom before her, if she would agree to go into exile. The generals were always looking for ways to be rid of her. She has been careful not to accept money from her husband, since Burmese politicians can be disbarred if they accept money from a foreign source. During the last two years, SLORC has been devising a new constitution to which they intend adding a clause stating that no one married to a foreigner can take part in Burmese politics. Anything to be rid of her.

Is Suu Kyi's release a ploy to disarm public opinion? SLORC's statement says that she will have the same rights as other citizens - which is not saying much. The cynicism of SLORC is not to be underestimated. Next year is Visit Myanmar Year; the government is desperate for tourist income.

I shot Beyond Rangoon in Malaysia. SLORC tried every trick to stop the picture being made. Wherever it plays, Burmese dissident groups hand out leaflets giving facts about continuing torture and slave labour in their country.

Whether Suu Kyi's release is a cosmetic move to encourage tourism and foreign investment or a genuine step towards liberation, one thing is sure: Suu Kyi herself will continue her heroic struggle.