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

Suggested Topics
Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?