Aung San Suu Kyi, a leaking roof, and the brother who won't let her fix it

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The Independent Online

In the time she has spent detained in her crumbling Rangoon home, the Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has endured isolation, frustration and grief.

Jailed or detained for nearly 14 of the last 20 years, she has watched helplessly as the military regime that runs Burma has killed or incarcerated her supporters and conjured up new reasons to keep her away from ordinary people. The tireless efforts of her dedicated lawyers to free her have always been in vain.

But tomorrow her lawyers will return to court for one of their strangest cases yet, when they appeal against an injunction that has stopped Ms Suu Kyi carrying out repair work to her increasingly dilapidated two-storey house. What makes the case all the more remarkable is that the man seeking to stop the Nobel Laureate from fixing her leaking roof is her estranged brother who lives in the US.

Speaking last night from Rangoon, one of the democracy campaigner's lawyers, U Kyi Win, confirmed: "First of all her brother went to the mayor and got a temporary order to stop the repair to the roof. We have to go tomorrow [to argue against it] and we already have our objections."

Few casual followers of Ms Suu Kyi and her decades-long struggle for democracy in a country ruled by a fist of iron would even know she had a brother, let alone one who is apparently being used by the junta to try to undermine her. But the unlikely tussle between brother and sister has been going on for many years and, say analysts, is part of the broader, continuing struggle between the military junta and Ms Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD).

The dispute between Ms Suu Kyi and Aung San Oo, her elder brother and only surviving sibling, dates back to 1988 when their mother, Khin Kyi, living at the white, colonial-style building located in Rangoon's University Avenue, suffered a stroke. As the health of their mother, the wife of Burma's independence leader Aung San and a woman who served as Burma's ambassador to India and Nepal, worsened, Ms Suu Kyi returned to Burma from her home in Oxford to care for her.

Nine months later her mother suffered a second stroke and died in late December, by which time the country's fledgling democracy movement had already mounted fierce challenges to the government, in which up to 6,000 democracy activists had been killed.

Ms Suu Kyi, who had first encountered the protesting students when they brought wounded comrades for treatment at the hospital where she was caring for her mother, was swept up in the struggle. She began addressing huge crowds, and was quickly acclaimed the legitimate heir to her father as the champion of Burmese freedom.

According to her lawyer, Mr San Oo said that she could continue to live in the family home for as long as she wanted, only stipulating that if she sold it, he would receive half the proceeds. Nothing more was heard of the matter until 2000 when Ms Suu Kyi's brother, who by this time had taken US citizenship and emigrated to California with his Burmese wife, launched a legal action in the Rangoon High Court for the house to be divided. On that occasion, Ms Suu Kyi's lawyers were successful and defeated the action but the following year, her brother, who is an an engineer, filed suit again. The matter is still pending.

In the meantime, Ms Suu Kyi, whose most recent spell of house arrest has seen her confined almost completely incommunicado since 2003 after her convoy was attacked and dozens of her supporters killed, has sought to have repairs carried out to the property. Last December, the authorities granted permission, given that the house was in an increasingly dangerous state, but lawyers for her brother obtained an injunction, citing his claim on the property. "The whole house will be drenched if it rains," another of Ms Suu Kyi's lawyers told reporters after meeting with his client late last year. "But she did not grumble about her situation."

The behaviour of the 64-year-old democracy leader's brother has upset many of her supporters. In a move with great resonance in devout Burma, a group of Buddhist monks involved in the September 2007 democracy demonstrations that brought hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets of Burma's cities, this week announced that they had "ex-communicated" Mr San Oo, banning him from making the offerings that, in the view of Theravada Buddhists, allow lay people to gain the merit that leads to Nirvana.

The announcement by the Burma Monks Organisation that it is enforcing a religious sanction known as pattani kuzanakan against Mr San Oo and his wife renders them outcasts. In 2007, groups of monks enforced a similar boycott on senior members of Burma's military regime and ordered all monks to refuse to accept alms from them. The group said they had sent a message to Mr San Oo demanding that he drop his legal action by 31 January. As he had not responded they had decided to go ahead with the ex-communication.

An exiled Burmese monk now living in the US and involved in the action against the democracy leader's brother, said last night: "We think he is trying to evict Aung San Suu Kyi. He does not agree with her being there."

What is not clear is the motivation for the behaviour of Ms Suu Kyi's brother, who yesterday could not be contacted. When he brought his first case in 2000, it was widely reported that he was acting on the instructions of the Burmese junta.

Mark Farmaner, of the Burma Campaign UK, said it was rumoured that Mr San Oo benefited from bringing the cases against his sister. "He is an American citizen but the regime use him to put pressure on her," he said.

One claim is that Mr San Oo has been given special privileges by the regime, which terms itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). In 2005 it was reported that he was overseeing the construction of a house near the ancient Burmese city of Bagan. While Burmese law prohibits foreign citizens owning property in Burma, it was reported that Ms Suu Kyi's brother had been given permission to build by senior government officials and that he intended to spend winters in the property. When he was not there, it was reported, the house would be used by the government.

Last year, a Burmese defector, Aung Lin Htut, the former deputy chief of mission to the Burmese Embassy in the US, told the Washington Post that the ambassador of the time had received instructions from Rangoon to obtain Mr San Oo's signature in exchange for the promise of business opportunities for his wife and her family. Some reports claim that Mr San Oo's wife has political ambitions.

"When Aung San Oo returned these papers with his signature, the ambassador checked them carefully, signed his signature to confirm and sent it back to General Than Shwe through the diplomatic pouch," said the former diplomat, who now lives in Maryland.

The legal showdown between Ms Suu Kyi and her brother comes as the SPDC is preparing to hold a controversial election later this year as part of what it claims is a move towards democracy – 20 years after the last election, which the NLD won by a landslide, though the victory was never honoured. Ms Suu Kyi has been barred from standing in the new election, which is expected to further cement the army's position.

Ms Suu Kyi herself, whose house arrest was extended last year after a US citizen swam across Inya Lake to her house uninvited, has given no public hint of how she regards the legal challenges mounted by her brother. It can be assumed, given all the other extaordinary privations of her life, that it is a source of great sorrow and indignation; while this week's ex-communication will give her the comfort of knowing that Burma's second-most powerful institution after the army – the Buddhist Sangha, or church, which led 2007's revolt – is still solidly behind her.