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."

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
Arts and Entertainment
Neil Young performs on stage at Hyde Park
musicAnd his Hyde Park set has rhyme and reason, writes Nick Hasted
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
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

Campaign Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency is currently ...

Software Engineer - C++

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Software En...

Software Team Leader - C++

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Software Tea...

Sales Executive - Central London /Home working - £20K-£40K

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Executive - Ce...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
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