Suu Kyi keeps flame of democracy alight

In an exclusive interview with Tim McGirk in Rangoon, Burma's opposition leader reveals her determination to fight for change

In Rangoon, critics of Aung San Suu Kyi claim that six years of house arrest imposed by the military regime have extinguished her fire. Since her release five weeks ago, these critics say, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has rarely ventured from the house beside Inya lake where she was kept prisoner for so long.

"No, the fire hasn't gone," Ms Suu Kyi told the Independent. Her voice stays calm, but her eyes flash, revealing a diamond-hard determination. "The Slorc [Burma's ruling generals] would like to believe that, but it isn't true."

Ms Suu Kyi is a slender, delicate woman, just turned 50; her face possesses a quiet radiance. Although she says she forgives her captors, her imprisonment has not weakened her resolve to bring democracy back to Burma. "Our intention is to get to the negotiating table with the military government. I'll work quietly and steadily for democracy," she said.

The release of Ms Suu Kyi reminded many Burmese of a Buddhist custom: On the steps of Burma's golden pagodas, you find vendors who will sell you a bird so that you can set it loose. The Burmese, who are mainly Buddhists, believe that this liberation will cleanse your karma.

But diplomats and many Burmese in Rangoon think there were less spiritual reasons for freeing Ms Suu Kyi. The military regime, they believe, badly needs to attract foreign investment and aid into Burma. Britain, the US and many other nations refuse to help because of the generals' poor human- rights record.

Pro-democracy forces, led by Ms Suu Kyi, won elections in 1990, but the Slorc (State Law and Order Restoration Council) refused to honour the results. The army placed Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest and threw thousands of her followers in jail. "Even under house arrest, I never felt claustrophobia," she said, adding with a laugh: "I confess, I do miss the regular hours that I used to keep when I was alone."

Ms Suu Kyi may have no choice but to deal with the generals from inside a kind of cage. Outside, the ordinary Burmese citizen lives in terror of spies and informers who keep track on where everybody goes and with whom they meet. Arrests and intimidation are common. Burmese are routinely press-ganged by the army to do everything from repair roads to act as coolies for soldiers fighting guerrillas in the jungle. It is hardly surprising that few Burmese dare to dissent openly.

Even at the gates of Ms Suu Kyi's house, a military intelligence agent jots down the name and address of her visitors. More police with binoculars are posted in a building across the street.

She is now accompanied by her husband, Michael Aris, an Oxford don, and one of their two sons, who flew out to join her as soon as she was freed. As one foreigner in Rangoon said: "The army is trying to ignore her. They're acting as if Aung San Suu Kyi is just an ordinary housewife who happens to have a lot of visitors."

Since her release, however, she has united her old party, the National League for Democracy, and activists from the jade mountains north of Mandalay down to the Irrawaddy delta have risked arrest to visit her.

Welding together her party was no small task, since the generals set the party's leaders against each other. Some activists were locked up, while others were forced to collaborate. Several of Burma's armed insurgent groups also rallied to her and called for three-way talks.

Most important is the change in mood. Once again, in restaurants and public parks, you find Burmese speaking out against the generals' misrule, if only in nervous whispers. "It's possible that the Slorc may have underestimated the solidarity of my support," Ms Suu Kyi said. And one Westerner explained: "The junta has an excellent spy network, but everybody is afraid to be the one to give their bosses the bad news of how popular she is."

Since her release, Ms Suu Kyi has urged her followers to move cautiously. She is still waiting for a first meeting with the junta. "Lines of communication are open with them," she said wryly. "It was easy. You probably noticed the military intelligence man at the gate."

Rangoon is a city of rumours, but most Westerners and Burmese dissidents agree that Ms Suu Kyi's surprising release from captivity has exposed deep fissures inside the Slorc. Comprising more than 20 generals in their 60s and 70s, many of whom rose from the rank of private to become regional warlords, the Slorc has brought Burma to the edge of ruin with its xenophobia and oddball "Buddhist economics".

Within the Slorc, the chairman, Tan Shwe, is seen as a "pragmatist" who realises that Burma can only grasp the foreign aid it desperately needs by making some concessions to Ms Suu Kyi.

The hardliners, led by Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt, in charge of military intelligence, argue that the many business opportunities in Burma will eventually convince Asian investors, notably from Singapore, South Korea and Japan, to overcome their qualms over the junta's cruelty.

Burmese are barred by the military regime from assembling in groups of more than five people. Yet every weekend, more than 1,000 followers of Ms Suu Kyi have gathered outside her gates to listen to "the Lady of the Lake" speak and offer her prayers.

"Sometimes it's raining and the ground is wet. I have to tell these people in front to have consideration for those in the back - democracy is like that - so they fold their umbrellas and sit down on the soggy ground. They're always very disciplined. Never noisy," said Ms Suu Kyi. She uses her words carefully - the shadow of her long imprisonment in solitude is still there in her words.

The petite, delicate woman smiles. "You know, I'm not a rabble-rouser. I don't think I've ever made even one fire-and- brimstone speech."

During her house arrest, the regime made her pay for the costs of her incarceration. Ms Suu Kyi was forced to sell her family's furniture.

A few days after she was set free, a lorry rumbled up to her house, loaded with armchairs, mirrors and wardrobes that had once been hers. Slorc had secretly bought up her belongings. "I refused to accept it. I said: 'Take it away until I've paid for it'." Her house is bare of all but a few family portraits on the wall. "Besides, I kind of like it this way," she laughed. "What I need isn't my old furniture but a proper office for our democracy party. All I've got is a single old typewriter."

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