Out of a Burmese garden, into the jungle political jungle

Why did the military junta suddenly free the country's most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi? Tim McGirk reports
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The Independent Online
For six years, the Burmese generals had kept Aung San Suu Kyi imprisoned in a house in Rangoon surrounded by a large tropical garden that came to resemble a jungle. Many Burmese joked ruefully that it seemed as though the military junta, which feared the diminutive and frail-looking dissident leader, were waiting for the tropical vines and luxuriant flowering bushes to smother the house and at last silence its occupant.

Released from her captivity, Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday popped her smiling head over the garden wall to wave at hundreds of cheering supporters. For those six years, her routine seldom varied: no visitors were allowed, and, a Buddhist, she spent hours meditating and reading books on philosophy and religion. Her rambling family house was nearly empty; she refused to take government money and sold her possessions in order to survive. Deprived of television and newspapers during her house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters: "First of all, I want to understand what's been going on outside this garden."

What she and most Burmese are trying to fathom is why the junta had a change of heart and set the 1991 Nobel peace laureate free. Just a few days before, hopes for Aung San Suu Kyi's release seemed dim; Burma's most powerful general, Khin Nyunt, had pointedly remarked that 45 million Burmese took precedence over the rights "of any single person". Diplomats were stunned by her unexpected release.

The reality that awaits Suu Kyi beyond the garden wall is this: the ruling generals are no longer so scared of her. The democratic forces that she led to an election victory in May 1990 are crushed or driven into exile. The 15 ethnic rebel groups, operating from bases hidden in the swamps and jungles along Burma's border, have been scattered by army offensives or lured into truces. One Rangoon diplomat said, "The junta were acting from a position of strength in releasing Aung San Suu Kyi."

Even so, the junta, which goes by the horrible-sounding acronym of SLORC (the State Law and Order Restoration Council), are still jittery enough to pretend that they have not set her free. Even though the Burmese are tuning in to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, the local state-controlled media has not announced the freeing of Burma's most famous prisoner. A reporter on Rangoon's state-run New Light of Myanmar daily said sheepishly, "I heard rumours about it, that's all," and hung up.

The celebrations in Rangoon and Mandalay, in the north, were muted affairs, carried out in homes away from the eyes of the SLORC's many secret police. One student activist in Rangoon, after hearing of Suu Kyi's freedom, walked around the campus. "I went there expecting crowds of joyful students. But there was nothing, no movement. People are still too scared." To meet without raising suspicion, many of Suu Kyi's followers gathered discreetly at Rangoon's pagodas to relay scraps of information. Other Burmese in Rangoon and Mandalay, when called from abroad, slammed their telephones down when Suu Kyi's name was mentioned, such was their fear of the SLORC's wiretappers.

Although Suu Kyi, now 50, appeared drawn and thin, imprisonment has not tempered her firm but quiet defiance. "I would like to take the opportunity to urge the authorities to release those of us who still remain in prison," she said yesterday. Exiled Burmese claim that the army has jailed more than a thousand monks, lawyers, intellectuals and former organisers of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won a sweeping victory in the 1990 general elections but was never allowed to take power by the junta.

"We have to choose between dialogue or utter devastation," Suu Kyi told reporters. She is expected to meet the military junta soon to chart a joint approach to solving Burma's many problems. It is one of Asia's potentially richest nations, with resources of gems, timber, oil and gas, but the country has been beggared by the whims and the zany Buddhist metaphysics of its military patriarch, Ne Win. The dictator was so obsessed with the number nine that he had all the currency notes printed in confusing multiples of his lucky number. Far worse was the junta's practice of press-ganging tens of thousands of Burmese for construction projects. Corruption was rife, and Western drug intelligence agencies suspect that some members of the junta may have been involved in heroin trade out of the Golden Triangle.

Diplomats consulted in Rangoon said that the army may simply want to use Suu Kyi's release to flash in front of Western countries which have blocked lending to Burma by major international financial institutions. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund cut off aid to the junta in 1988 for its appalling human rights record. As a result, Burma's roads, telecommunications and health care are probably the worst in Asia. Most of the treasury's funds go straight to the army.

Relatives and friends claim that Suu Kyi compares her own situation to that of Nelson Mandela, who after freedom brought about a peaceful end to apartheid. "Once bitter enemies in South Africa are now working together for the betterment of the people. We can look forward to a similar process," she said in a prepared statement after her release.

A petite, fragile-looking woman married to a British academic, Suu Kyi seems an unlikely champion to pit against one of the world's most fearsome military dictatorships. A scholar, she was dragged into politics by virtue of being the daughter of modern Burma's biggest national hero, General Aung San, who led the revolt against British colonial rule until his assassination in 1947. She was only two when her father was murdered, yet as one Burmese activist said, "Not only did she look like her father, she spoke like him also: short, concise and to the point."

With her husband and two children, Suu Kyi spent most of her life abroad. It was only when she returned to Rangoon in 1987 to care for her dying mother that she was swept to the front of the uprising against the generals who had ruled Burma since 1962. In her first political speech in Rangoon, she held an audience of 200,000 spellbound. Many came to the protest rally curious to see what Aung San's daughter looked like, but soon the crowd was captivated by her honesty and her fearlessness. "I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to what was going on," she has said.

Her campaign, Freedom from Fear, resonated throughout the Burmese countryside. Inspired by the teachings of Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, Suu Kyi proved to be the one figure capable of uniting Burma's myriad ethnic clans and cowed middle class. This worried the generals. On 20 July 1989, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for "endangering the state", while many other leaders of her party were tortured and jailed by the junta. Those that could fled to India and Thailand. Without Suu Kyi's driving spirit, many of the pro-democracy supporters either grew disillusioned or fell to quarrelling in exile. When she claimed yesterday that "I'm happy to be able to say that in spite of all that they have undergone, the forces of democracy remain strong and dedicated", her sentiments struck some Burmese as naive.

One Burmese exile student in India said, "I rang up some of my old pro- democracy activists in Rangoon and asked if the movement was going to start again with Suu Kyi's release, and they said no, that all people cared about these days was money and VCRs."

"The Lady", as Suu Kyi is reverentially called by the Burmese, may find that the military regime, in its old age, is mellowing just slightly. Her foe, General Ne Win, was forced into retirement by his subordinates and rarely leaves his palace across the Inya lake from where Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest. These days, say diplomats, Ne Win is as much a prisoner of his own superstitions as Suu Kyi was of the junta. The currency notes are no longer based on nine but are 10 and 100s like everywhere else in the world.

Liberalisation has brought in foreign investment from Singapore and Thailand, and although peasants are still under-fed, illiterate and without necessary medical care, the middle-class in Rangoon - who once supported Suu Kyi's fight for democracy - are now revelling in the capital's economic boon. In Mandalay, brothels with karaoke music now cater to Japanese and Korean tourists.

The world outside Aung San Suu Kyi's garden is much changed. The question is, how much leeway will the generals allow the lady to change Burma even more?

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