Countdown to freedom: 17 years after she was first put under house arrest, will Aung San Suu Kyi finally taste liberty?

The outside world has had its first direct word from Aung San Suu Kyi in more than two years. The next week could mean everything or nothing for the imprisoned democratic leader of Burma. The Burmese junta's surprise decision to grant a senior United Nations official access to the 1991 Nobel peace laureate has revived hope she may be released.

This week, the generals who crushed Ms Suu Kyi's democracy movement will decide whether to extend her house arrest beyond its present term, which expires on Saturday. That day will mark the 16th anniversary of her overwhelming election victory. The military dictatorship ignored that and she has spent 10 of the past 17 years imprisoned.

Ibrahim Gambari, the Under Secretary of the United Nations, became the first person from outside the secretive and oppressive state, to see one of the world's most prominent political prisoners, since March of 2004. She is in virtual solitary confinement and in the absence of contact with the outside world rumours arose that Ms Suu Kyi, now 60, is slowly being poisoned.

In Bangkok, Mr Gambari said she was physically sound. "She is well, but of course she is still under restriction," he said. The Nigerian envoy spent 45 minutes with Ms Suu Kyi, who was brought to see him from her overgrown lakeside villa in Rangoon. He said he must report to the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, before saying more.

Among democracy activists the unexpected meeting was seen as a political breakthrough. U Lwin, secretary of Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, said: "This is an improvement on the part of the authorities. I think this is progress. It is quite likely that her detention might not be extended this time."

Other party members had doubts. "I don't think expectations should be too high because of just one meeting," said Win Myint. "We should wait and see the developments before drawing positive conclusions."

On Saturday, an imposing black car with tinted windows left Suu Kyi's residence and whisked her to a government guest house five minutes away, and returned within the hour.

Earlier, Mr Gambari had toured the new administrative capital at Naypyidaw, near Pyinmana, where civil servants were ordered to move last November. There, close to the jungle stronghold where Ms Suu Kyi's war hero father, General Aung San, had launched Burma's independence movement, the UN envoy met the country's absolute ruler, General Than Shwe.

The supremo forbids the mention of Aung San Suu Kyi's name in his presence, but diplomats said talks touched on Burma's humanitarian challenges, restrictions on international aid groups and, in particular, a brutal army offensive that has displaced thousands of ethnic Karen tribespeople.

"Gambari accomplished something the previous UN envoys have not been able to do," U Lwin said. "This makes us optimistic. Slowly, slowly, catch the monkey. Yet it's hard to say that the path is open for changes."

While the generals tout a road-map to democracy and called for a constitutional convention to rubber-stamp a military government, the NLD boycotted these proceedings and labelled them a sham. The junta threatened to dissolve the pro-democracy party for its alleged links with illegal organisations, which they blame for recent bombings in the capital.

"The government has enough evidence to declare the NLD an unlawful association for its links with terrorist groups and exiled dissident organisations," one minister said. Feeling the heat, numerous party members have resigned.

Last week, the US Senate passed a resolution condemning attacks on Karen insurgents, the most deadly in a decade, and urged the UN Security Council to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Ms Suu Kyi and all prisoners of conscience in Burma.

The country has been under repressive military rule since 1962. Since the present junta took power in 1988, some 1,100 prisoners of conscience remain in prison. The junta supports isolation from the West and closer ties with China and India.

"The regime has consistently played the Suu Kyi card whenever it got backed into a corner, either to relieve outside pressure or to stage a diplomatic coup to win hearts and minds at home and abroad," said Aung Zaw, a Burmese commentator exiled in northern Thailand.

Ms Suu Kyi never intended to be a heroine for Burmese democracy. She was nursing her ailing mother in Rangoon when General Ne Win staged the coup in 1988 and the military fired on student protesters, killing thousands. She spoke out against army brutality and was detained at gunpoint and put under house arrest at her family's rundown house. But she became revered as an icon for the dispossessed and a thorn in the junta's side.

Admirers would mob Ms Suu Kyi whenever she was allowed to travel in her country, from 1995-2000 and for a few months in 2002-03. Her passion for Burma meant less contact with her two sons, both in their thirties and in the UK. While she was imprisoned, her husband, the Oxford don Michael Aris, died of prostate cancer in 1999. Suu Kyi did not to visit him on his deathbed because she feared the generals would block her return.

General Than Shwe assumed her message was becoming irrelevant, but was astounded by the excitement her speaking tours generated. In May 2003, her convoy was attacked by government thugs and Burma's stubborn hero, known as the Titanium Orchid, was locked up again.

A history of repression

By Simon Usborne

* 1945: Burma liberated from Japanese by the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League, led by Aung San, father of Ms Suu Kyi

* 1947: Aung San assassinated by nationalist rivals. A year later U Nu heads an independent Burma

* 1962: Progressive U Nu ousted by General Ne Win, who forms a repressive socialist state and bans opposition parties

* 1987-9: Thousands killed in anti-government riots. Martial law declared. Mass arrests follow including Ms Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy

* 1990: Military ignores a landslide victory for NLD

* 1991: Ms Suu Kyi awarded Nobel Peace Prize

* 1995: Ms Suu Kyi released from house arrest

* 2000-01: Burma's ruling council holds secret talks with Ms Suu Kyi and releases 200 pro-democracy activists, but the NLD leader is under house arrest again

* 2002: Ms Suu Kyi released. A year later she is taken into "protective custody"

* 2004: Constitutional convention begins. NLD boycotts the event and Ms Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. Talks end in January 2006 with no reports of progress

* 2006: Senior UN official is the first foreigner to see Ms Suu Kyi for two years

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