Burma's heroine prepares to face foes over father's grave

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT WAS an electrifying moment, not only for Burma, but for the whole of South-east Asia, where authoritarian intransigence is the rule rather than the exception. At first the throng that gathered outside Aung San Suu Kyi's house in Rangoon on news of her release from house arrest could barely believe the turn of events. When she emerged from the house and then stood on a platform above the crowd to speak, it was, as one commentator said, as if a new moon had suddenly risen in the darkness that had reigned in Burma for nearly six years.

Her courage and composure were in serene contrast to Slorc, the ugly acronym for the State Law and Order Restoration Council of Burma's ruling military which held her in virtual isolation for nearly six years.

The resounding silence from the military is seen by some of her more pessimistic supporters as an indication that the army hopes she will simply fade from the political arena. It is thought that her unconditional release has been granted because the army no longer considers her a threat.

This week, however, should see a test of that. Martyr's Day on Wednesday commemorates the assassination of Ms Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, who was Burma's independence leader and founder of the army. He and six of his constituent cabinet were killed in 1947, on the eve of independence. It seems likely that Ms Suu Kyi will wish to lay a wreath on his grave, where she would make her first public contact with the military, which will also be honouring him.

Awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, Ms Suu Kyi is the most revered opposition leader in Burma (renamed Myanmar by Slorc). She has acknowledged that despite her release, she and the Burmese people still have a painfully long way to go in their bid for democracy.

There has still been no public announcement of her release on the state- controlled media. "Excitement has been building up," a resident in Rangoon, the capital, said. "People learnt of her release on the BBC World Service and the Voice of America. A World Service broadcast of her in Burmese was the first time her voice had been heard since 1989."

Ms Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won at least 80 per cent of the votes in Burma's 1990 elections, but the results have been ignored by the military. For the last few years army leaders have been drawing up a new constitution. During this long-winded procedure it has been announced that in a reordered Burma, a quarter of parliamentary seats should be taken by the military and the supreme ruler should be an elected president with military experience - clearly Ms Suu Kyi does not fit that bill.

In a xenophobic ruling concocted by the army, Ms Suu Kyi was not even allowed to stand in the 1990 elections. She was disqualified because she is married to a foreigner. Her British husband, Oxford don Michael Aris, and her two sons - Kim, 17, and Alexander, 22, were allowed to visit her periodically while she was under house arrest. However, since their last visit in 1994 they have not been given visas.

Her future role depends on whether she will be able to establish meaningful dialogue with the military. "We have to choose between dialogue or utter devastation," she said at a recent press conference. "I would like to believe that the human instinct for survival alone, if nothing else, would eventually lead us to prefer dialogue."

"Let's hope and pray the military accepts her offer of discussion and works out a settlement," says Martin Morland, chairman of the educational charity Prospect Burma and former British ambassador to Burma. "No one can deny the army a certain prominence, but they should not insist on a monopoly of power."

To undertake a role in Burma's future government would be a daunting task. Despite its wealth of natural resources, it ranks as one of the world's 10 poorest countries - wooing foreign investors is undoubtedly one reason for Ms Suu Kyi's release. National unity is also a key issue: Burma has been in a state of virtual civil war since independence from the British in 1948. A ceasefire policy instituted in 1992 has led to the Burmese army negotiating truces with 15 insurgent forces.

But there are still large areas of the country where Slorc has little or no control: the gangster land of drugs and gem traffickers along the Chinese and Thai borders, and the remaining territory of the Karen National Union, with which the Burmese military continues its conflict.

Ms Suu Kyi has always said there should be no division between the army and the people of Burma. A book of her campaign speeches prior to her house arrest has recently been published by Lahaule Press in India (but not yet in in Burma; first it would have to be approved by the Draconian censors). The introduction includes her translation into Burmese of Kipling's If, a poem she frequently quoted to her followers. After six years of her detention it is perhaps even more poignant today, and underlies her determination and Gandhian outlook:

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting / Or being lied about, don't deal in lies / Or being hated, don't give way to hatred ...