Burmese junta rules in fear of its shy prisoner: Visitors found that Aung Sang Suu Kyi remains unbowed by years under arrest, writes Tim McGirk from Rangoon

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The Independent Online
THE HOUSE with the long, green fence at 56 University Avenue in Rangoon has an air of quarantine. No cars are allowed to park outside, and anyone who approaches its tall gate is encircled by armed soldiers and arrested. The contamination that radiates out is political and much feared by Burma's military regime.

For inside the house, surrounded by an overgrown, jungly garden, is the prisoner of conscience, Aung San Suu Kyi. A petite, shy-looking woman of 48, she spent much of her life as a scholar at Oxford. Yet, before her arrest in July 1989, she spellbound a crowd of 200,000 in Rangoon with her message of peaceful defiance against Burma's military rulers.

It is unwise to mention her name within earshot of the secret police, but for many Burmese, she is saint and saviour. In 1991, while under house arrest, Ms Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Bending to international pressure, the Burmese military council last February agreed to a brief meeting between her and a delegation led by a US congressman, Bill Richardson. They were her first guests in more than four years of confinement.

Until then, her only outside contact had been through her servant, a lieutenant-colonel who looks after her household needs, and the soldiers who guard her. After her Nobel award, the regime relented and now allows Ms Suu Kyi short, occasional visits from her British husband, Michael Aris, an Oxford Tibetologist, and their two sons.

Visitors found her frail, yet unbowed by her long and solitary detention. She rises at 4.30am and meditates at her lakeside home. Ms Suu Kyi is a Buddhist and spends hours reading books on philosophy and religion. Her rambling house is nearly empty of furniture: she sold it to pay the costs of her own imprisonment. She shuns the local television and state-run newspapers and gathers her news from foreign radio broadcasts and a Burmese exile station in Norway.

The house, say visitors, is filled with photographs of her late father, Aung San, Burma's nationalist hero. It was only in 1988, when Ms Suu Kyi returned to tend her ailing mother, that she was swept up in the uprising against the junta. With her famous name and her bravery, she rapidly emerged as the movement's leader.

She told Mr Richardson that she was prepared to negotiate with the junta on all issues except her going into exile. It is doubtful that the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) plans to release its prisoner soon. The powerful chief of military intelligence, Khin Nyunt, claimed that soon after Mr Richardson's visit, several senior army officers were sent to sound out Ms Suu Kyi's proposals. General Khin Nyunt declared that she had been 'negative' and 'counter-productive'. However, informed sources in Rangoon denied this. They said no military delegation had visited her, nor had the Slorc tried to open dialogue with her through any other channel. The generals are afraid that if set free, she would resume her campaign to end 32 years of military rule. Her detention, due to end this summer, was recently extended at least until January 1995. No reason was given. Nor has she ever faced trial for her allegedly 'subversive' activities.

But the Slorc cannot afford to lock up Ms Suu Kyi and forget about her as it has done with thousands of political dissidents. Britain, the United States, and most countries have condemned the junta's bad human rights record and refuse to help Burma unless she is freed. Yet in talks with her visitors, her main concern was for those people now in jail suffering conditions far worse than hers.

Despite Ms Suu Kyi's detention, her party, the National League for Democracy, won an overwhelming victory in general elections in 1990. But instead of handing over power, the Slorc imprisoned and allegedly tortured many party leaders. One visitor said: 'She feels it's wrong to get all the limelight. She thinks maximum attention ought to be paid to those followers who are kept in solitary confinement.' Many are ill and receive only food their families can smuggle in. Her health has suffered. Many Burmese who saw photographs of her taken during Mr Richardson's visit were shocked by her pallor and weight loss. Sources said she is recovering from several ailments.

Burma's economy is at last opening to foreigners, but observers say the Slorc has no intention of preparing for democracy. Many Burmese do not hide their dislike for the Slorc, despite their fear of the secret police.

'What the generals don't realise is that the one person who can calm the excesses of popular resentment against them is Suu Kyi herself,' said one Burma- watcher. 'The longer they wait to deal with her, the more violently the Burmese will resist them.'

(Photograph omitted)