Junta's foes overcome fear of prying eyes

Inside Burma: The whirring spy cameras at Aung San Suu Kyi's rallies no longer frighten the democracy leader's supporters

The secret police at Aung San Suu Kyi's weekend democracy rallies are easy to spot. With cameras and videos whirring, they elbow through the crowd and focus their lenses, not on the Burmese opposition leader, but on every face.

The cruel eye of the secret police often fixes on a round-cheeked lady in her sixties sitting demurely with her umbrella and her tiffin on a newspaper spread over the muddy ground.

She always sits as near as she can to the picket fence, where Aung San Suu Kyi comes to speak. The lady has a spray of jasmine in her silver hair and is always smiling. No matter how intrusively the police jam their cameras into her face, the lady never loses her calm smile. She does not flinch.

Is she afraid of the military regime? Most Burmese with good sense are. Her reply is emphatic: "No! Let them arrest me. I want them to know I want democracy," she said. The lady always arrives three hours before Ms Suu Kyi appears at the fence, and is often caught in a monsoon deluge that rips away her umbrella. Ms Suu Kyi has rushed through the downpour and pleaded with the lady to come into her house until the rally starts. But the smiling lady refuses. It was enough for her to hear Ms Suu Kyi speak of democracy.

The thousands who gather outside the Nobel Peace Prize winner's house beside a lake are ordinary people. They are not martyrs or militants. They are office workers or teachers who feel guilty after being compelled by the military state to sign official denunciations of "foreign stooges" - meaning Ms Suu Kyi. Had they refused, they would lose their jobs and houses. They are young Buddhist monks, squatting under jacaranda trees, who are saddened that the junta has bought off the abbots with Mercedes sedans. Or, they are poor farmers who are tired of giving half their rice harvest to the army, or being press-ganged into widening roads, so that tourist coaches can reach the golden pagodas encircled by souvenir shops. They are even the wives and the children of high-ranking officials who, after fierce rows at home, go off to hear "Auntie Suu".

They are all at risk by coming to see Ms Suu Kyi. But the gentle fire of this fragile-looking 49-year-old woman who dares to challenge the generals has given them courage, too. One rally-goer, standing rather fearlessly next to the barbed fence of a house commandeered by the secret police, said: "She's become like a protective deity for us."

Every rally that Ms Suu Kyi has held since her release last year, after six years under house arrest, has been charged with the uncertainty that, at any time, the riot police hiding at opposite ends of her lakeside home will scythe through the crowd and arresting everyone, including Ms Suu Kyi and other leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD).

The danger of her re-arrest has risen dramatically. The ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) passed a new law a week ago aimed specifically at her and her supporters. The Slorc tried to scare away people from her rallies with threats of jail sentences.

"I'm not sure why they needed this new law," said Ms Suu Kyi, wryly. "They've been arresting people for a long time now without it." When she called an NLD party congress in late May, the angry Slorc arrested 262 league members. More than 120 of her supporters, many of them MPs elected in the 1990 elections, ignored by the junta, are still being held in military intelligence "guest houses" around Rangoon.

But she defied the junta. On 8 June, she clambered up to her usual place on the fence and began to talk. Because she did not back away from the junta's threats, neither did her supporters. More than 10,000 came to hear her (though her tone towards the generals then and this weekend was milder and slightly conciliatory). "Slorc has a low opinion of our Burmese people. They think they're easily frightened. But this isn't true, so many came out," she explained.

Why did the military regime fail to carry out its threats? It is a question that neither Ms Suu Kyi nor Western observers in Rangoon can answer. The inner workings of the secretive ruling council, whose life revolves around military compounds and the golf course, is a mystery to Burmese and foreign diplomats alike.

They are reduced to divining the Slorc's views on the pro-democracy movement by how rude the insults are against Ms Suu Kyi in the state daily, the New Light of Myanmar. Lately, the jibes against her have become more venomous. "Maybe the Slorc is just biding their time with us," said Ms Suu Kyi.

Directly across the avenue from her house is another villa full of secret police. It is close enough so that police scribes, in T-shirts and sarongs, can take notes on her speeches without leaving the verandah.

Ms Suu Kyi is a good speaker, friendly and personal, and she cannot resist an occasional joke at the Slorc's expense.

After one jibe, a ripple of laughter spread through the crowd. I glanced over and saw one of the police on the verandah. He was smiling in agreement. Then he caught himself quickly, and solemnly resumed his spying.

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