Aung San Suu Kyi: The Lady at 60

Still imprisoned. Still fighting for democracy. Why the story of Aung San Suu Kyi should haunt the conscience of the world
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The Independent Online

Already the photographs have that deathly historical look of events long ago and far away, of campaigns and triumphs that belong to another era. The pictures of Burma's general election of 1990, the only time in the past 45 years that the Burmese people have been given the opportunity to vote, were reproduced in the May issue of the Burmese opposition magazine Irrawaddy, published in Bangkok. They are unbearably sad.

Already the photographs have that deathly historical look of events long ago and far away, of campaigns and triumphs that belong to another era. The pictures of Burma's general election of 1990, the only time in the past 45 years that the Burmese people have been given the opportunity to vote, were reproduced in the May issue of the Burmese opposition magazine Irrawaddy, published in Bangkok. They are unbearably sad.

In longyi and white shirts, hair slick with oil, Burmese people young and old crowd around the ballot boxes in the polling stations. A young member of Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), flowers in her hair, smiles proudly before a romantic poster of Suu Kyi, garlanded and beaming, striding into the radiant future with the Burmese flag. In another picture Suu Kyi herself, petite, elegant and composed, marches towards another podium, shadowed by soldiers with automatic rifles.

Aung San Suu Kyi, still a young woman in those grainy election photos, turns 60 tomorrow. And if, as seems very likely, the day passes like all the other days since she was rearrested in May 2003, there will be no party. Suu Kyi has been held in almost complete isolation for more than two years now, first in Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison, then in the dilapidation of her family's lakeside home in the capital's suburbs.

As campaigners protested yesterday outside 50 Burmese embassies around the world, including the one in London, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, added his voice to those condemning Suu Kyi's incarceration, calling her treatment "indefensible". The only visitor she is allowed is the family doctor, once a fortnight. The junta's guards enforce a total ban on visitors. A couple of women help with the cooking and the cleaning. And that is it. No foreign diplomats are allowed near, as was the custom, nor the Malaysian diplomat and United Nations special envoy Razali Ismail who brokered her last release from detention in May 2002.

No messages penetrate to the outside world, giving some hint of her mental state, her assessment of the developing situation. Her phone line was cut long ago. We assume she is alive and in at least moderately good health. We imagine she continues with the Buddhist meditation that, along with her now-defunct piano, kept her tolerably buoyant through many previous years of solitude. But the star of Burma today emits neither light nor heat.

Three years ago, it all promised to be so different. Painful sanctions by the United States, exacerbating the effects of the regional recession, induced the head of the junta, Senior-General Than Shwe, to hold secret talks with Suu Kyi, brokered by Mr Ismail. Suu Kyi, known all over Burma as "The Lady", demanded that the result of the 1990 election be honoured; the regime wanted a return to prosperity and respectability.

Thanks to Mr Ismail, "confidence-building measures" were implemented: the NLD was allowed to reopen some offices, a couple of hundred party members in prison were freed (although 1,500 remained inside). Then finally, on 6 May 2002, after talks that had stretched over a year, The Lady was free again.

Within days it was as if she had never been away. The shabby central office of her party was immediately a hubbub of activity again. With other foreign journalists, I blagged my way into the country on a tourist visa and began my vigil in her place of work. "A woman in the corner is going full pelt with a treadle sewing-machine," I wrote, "running up party flags; at the far end a free English lesson is in progress, open to all. Party members scoop water from a cauldron. The librarian marshals her small, battered collection of books.

"There is a sudden commotion at the door, an urgent hushed announcement, and the men and women stop whatever they are doing and stand up straight, forming two neat lines. The party's general secretary Daw [Lady] Aung San Suu Kyi, steps briskly into the office, arm swinging like a soldier, the ghost of a smile on her face, and vanishes up the stairs."

In my interview with her, she conveyed her impatience for change in the country. "The authorities have said something about turning a new page," she said. "I certainly don't want the page to remain blank for a long time. What we want is for the page to be filled up, quickly, and with a lot of desirable stuff."

Both sides were nervous and cautious; Suu Kyi was careful to keep her appearances in Rangoon business-like and semi-private, to avoid frightening the generals with big rallies. But the air of optimism was unmistakable. Major change was in the air.

A Burmese political analyst connected to the regime told me, "The government is prepared to go along with recognition of the election result of 1990. I believe a lot of details have been agreed. But they will retain veto power."

The devil, as ever, was in the details: what did the election being "honoured" mean? Allowing the NLD to form a government on the basis of the 1990 result? Suu Kyi told me: "We are not holding on to the 1990 elections in the sense of using it to gain power. What we are concerned about is the democratic principle." If that meant fresh elections, she added: "Who's to say we won't get a bigger majority this time?"

But with the arrogance of blinkered autocrats, the regime made exactly the same miscalculation they had made in 1990: they convinced themselves Suu Kyi's shelf-life had expired, and they could set her free without putting their jobs at risk.

But as she began venturing gingerly out of Rangoon, drawing bigger and bigger crowds, despite a media blackout and although she had been out of the public eye for more than nine years, the junta began to grasp the truth: The Lady was popular as ever. Finally they stopped her bandwagon in the only way they knew how.

When Suu Kyi's party entourage rolled into the northern town of Depayin after dark on 30 May 2003 they were set upon by dozens of men armed with sharp iron rods. A witness told the UNHCR's Commission on Human Rights: "People were being beaten savagely. I was hearing the wounded, dying victims moaning and wailing in pain ... I saw the attackers strike the victims with all their force, stabbing viciously with pointed iron rods ... I heard the popping sound of heads being broken."

The attackers, believed to have been goons of the regime, bludgeoned and stabbed to death at least 70 NLD supporters. It is widely believed that it was an attempt to assassinate Suu Kyi, which she survived thanks largely to the courage of her driver. Suu Kyi and the other surviving leaders of the party were arrested. She has not been seen in public since then.

Burma seems condemned to repeat its bitter and bloody history over and over again. The national uprising of 1988 and the election two years later brought the hermit of South-east Asia into the historical moment with a bang. But the spasm was bitterly unproductive.

The country today is a pariah nation, with one of the worst records in the world for arbitrary imprisonment, forced labour, torture, corruption and injustice of every sort. The UN has charged it with "crimes against humanity" for systematic abuse of human rights.

Yet the outside world, with the exception of the US, has done next to nothing. Gallons of official ink have been spilled condemning the behaviour of the Burmese junta. Heart-rending appeals have been made for Aung San Suu Kyi to be released. But where are the tough measures?

The British Government wrings its hands, but refuses to impose sanctions unilaterally. Never has the moral spinelessness of the EU been more starkly apparent. Until Europe is cajoled into taking serious and concerted action to bring Senior-General Than Shwe and his colleagues to their senses, that failure should haunt the consciences of us all.

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