Aung San Suu Kyi: Determined to build on national euphoria

The Burmese dissident and democracy leader speaks to The Independent after seven years in prison

"No, no, not there, sit down here next to me," commands Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese dissident and democracy leader, when I try to take a more formal position across the teak coffee table for our interview. Five days after her release from house arrest, Ms Suu Kyi is keeping up a punishing schedule of meetings and interviews, briefings from her colleagues and phone calls from world leaders, while all the time worrying about whether her son will be granted a visa to visit her.

The warmth and authority of her opening instruction is typical of the woman who has combined those qualities to such potent effect, maintaining her status as the icon of Burma's democracy movement through two decades of detention.

Now she is out, and working hard. "I have so much to do, I barely have time to breathe!" she sighs, sitting straight-backed in a neat grey blouse and long silk skirt, her hair pulled back in a ring of tiny yellow roses. We are in her office – a small, freshly painted room at the top of the stairs in the distinctly shabby headquarters of her National League for Democracy (NLD).

Ms Suu Kyi, 65, was released on Saturday from her latest, seven-year stint as a prisoner in her Rangoon home to a euphoric reception from thousands of her supporters. She has challenged them to help her bring about a "peaceful revolution" in Burma, which has been under military dictatorship for half a century.

"I can't do it on my own," she said. "I think my release has created a tremendous release of energy, of opportunity, and I want people to grab that and try to push the limits."

Ms Suu Kyi said she had noticed some small changes, new freedoms, since her last release in 2003, and she urged her supporters to push for more.

"Now they are allowed to put me on the cover of the newspapers. That's new," she said, before breaking off into one of the little asides that pepper her conversation. "It was so funny because on the way to the office this morning there was a little boy who was selling these newspapers. He was going from one car to another but he completely overlooked mine. He tried to sell one to the car in front of us, and they didn't take it because I think they'd already bought one, then he looked right past my car and went to the one behind. It was so funny."

Back to politics, and Ms Suu Kyi talks about the election earlier this month. Her party refused to take part in the poll, the first in Burma since the NLD won a landslide victory in a 1990 election which the generals annulled. This time, the junta rigged the vote to ensure that its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, was the overwhelming winner.

Ms Suu Kyi's next move is to consult, catch up, engage and try to revitalise the democracy movement, which has stagnated without her. Her remarkable perseverance and commitment to principle have won her many admirers in the West, among them David Cameron, who called her earlier this week.

"I spoke to him on the phone the other day. He was very supportive. He has a very nice voice. He has come out with very strong and helpful statements. I hope that we will be able to work closely and effectively with him," Ms Suu Kyi said.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner said she was hopeful that she could turn Western leaders' supportive words into actions, and would try to win the support of Burma's neighbours China and India, whose close business ties to the regime have helped to ensure its longevity.

"If we want to do more we will have to tell them more clearly what we would like them to do," she said. "That's why I am now trying to catch up on what has been going on in the past seven years to see how our friends around the world can join in to give greater emphasis to the movement for democracy. Then, of course, we will try to get our Asian neighbours to be more supportive."

Ms Suu Kyi said she is assessing the impact of Western sanctions against Burma, to see whether they are hurting ordinary Burmese people more than the junta leaders and their business cronies against whom they are targeted. Her opinion would heavily influence policymakers in Europe and the US, who in the past have looked to Ms Suu Kyi for guidance on how to deal with Burma's military regime.

But through all her political plans, and a schedule befitting a world-famous political dissident, her thoughts turn frequently to her younger son, Kim, who is waiting in Bangkok for a visa to see his mother for the first time in a decade.

"I've been speaking to Kim in Bangkok and saying 'what are you doing today?' and he says 'I'm going out to buy you a present,'" she said.

"He seems to be buying me lots and lots of presents, so I'm a little worried that he won't be given the opportunity to come in and give them to me. It seems a bit unnecessary to keep him hanging on for so long, don't you think?"

Ms Suu Kyi's light tone belies the heavy personal toll that her years in detention – 15 of the last 21 – have exacted. Her English husband, the Oxford academic Michael Aris, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and was repeatedly denied a visa to visit his wife before he died, two years later. Ms Suu Kyi made the painful decision not to travel to England, fearing she would not be allowed back into Burma. Her sons, Alexander and Kim, now in their thirties, have been barred from visiting her for a decade, and she has never met her two grandchildren.

But she refuses to dwell on her own sacrifices, comparing her circumstances favourably with the lot of Burma's other political prisoners, who number more than 2,200.

"It embarrasses me to talk about the personal cost to me when I see what other political prisoners have to put up with. Compared to that, whatever I have had to undergo is nothing. My personal cost is very little compared to theirs. Of course one always thinks that one's family is lovelier than every other family in the world. That's only natural," she smiles.

Ms Suu Kyi said she relied on "inner resources", and a strict daily routine, to get her through her last period of house arrest. During those seven years, the authorities delivered to her just one letter from each of her sons. Even so, regular visits from her lawyer and doctor and the companionship of her two housekeepers made this period more tolerable than her first stint under house arrest between 1989 and 1995, she said.

"The first time I was placed under house arrest I was alone in the house and all the security people were camped in the garden. In my garden. And apart from the times when my family was allowed to visit me I hardly saw anybody from the outside," she said.

"They threw me into the deep end," she giggled. "And after that I could swim beautifully."

Since her release, Ms Suu Kyi has avoided direct criticism of the military junta led by General Than Shwe, but is aware that her appeals for democratic change may well bring her back into confrontation with Burma's generals, and back into detention.

While Ms Suu Kyi is free, many of her supporters are worried about her safety, saying that hundreds of thugs have been hired by the government to incite violence at her rallies. They believe the authorities may be plotting an attempt on her life, as they did in 2003, when Ms Suu Kyi's convoy was set upon by hired thugs in Depayin, in the north of the country. Dozens of party supporters were murdered and Ms Suu Kyi herself narrowly avoided being killed. She was taken back into detention "for her own protection".

Ms Suu Kyi's response to concerns about her safety seems sweetly naïve: "I'm not particularly concerned about my own safety. Not in the sense that I don't care whether I'm safe or not, of course I want to be safe, but I don't spend time and energy thinking about that. I don't want my supporters to be hurt in any way. But I don't think in Rangoon in broad daylight if there are many people around... they wouldn't get away with it as they did in Depayin."

For now she has her security detail to protect her – the young men in NLD T-shirts who waited for two days, arms linked in solidarity, for her release.

"This is my security, you might say, some of them are NLD youth, and some of them are just friends. But I don't know how strong they are, some of them look quite small to me."

Aung San Suu Kyi on...

Her daily life: "I meditate, I read, there are things I have to do around the house. I had the piano tuned quite recently.... so I started tinkling a bit, which felt very strange after seven-odd years."

The election result: "What surprises me is that some people thought it would be different. Did they really think it would be better than that? I wasn't surprised: we didn't take part in the elections because we knew that was going to happen."

Her country's future: "There are so many young people who support us, full of energy and vigour and vim. But they have to learn not to be afraid of political contacts and politics. They need to have courage."

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