5,000 days in captivity: The world's most famous political prisoner and a dismal landmark

Burma's leaders hoped the world would forget about the detained opposition leader. But her influence and support are a potent threat to the military regime – and it refused the UN Secretary General permission to meet her last week

Andrew Buncombe
Sunday 05 July 2009 00:00 BST
Ms Suu Kyi is being held in prison, having been charged with violating the terms of her house arrest
Ms Suu Kyi is being held in prison, having been charged with violating the terms of her house arrest (AFP)

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Today, like most days, Aung San Suu Kyi will sit and wait. She will spend the day with the two women she has been detained with since 2003. That she is being held in a "guesthouse" in the grounds of Rangoon's Insein jail, as opposed to her lakeside house where she has spent the past six years, makes little difference; she has no television, radio or phone. But today is special, and for the most dismal of reasons. It is the 5,000th day of her incarceration.

Ms Suu Kyi is being held at the prison, having been charged with violating the terms of her house arrest after a mysterious American swam to her home and spent the night there. In truth, the only crime committed by the graceful opposition leader was to win an election two decades ago. Even now, the junta is terrified that this slight 64-year-old widow has the power to do something they have never been able to do: lead and unite the people of Burma without the threat of force. That is why she is kept a prisoner, out of sight but never out of mind.

Yesterday, in a move that underlined the regime's fear about Ms Suu Kyi's latent power, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was refused permission to speak with her. On a controversial visit to Burma to try to convince Senior General Than Shwe to release more than 2,000 political prisoners and restart dialogue with the opposition, Mr Ban said his request for a meeting with Ms Suu Kyi had been turned down. "I pressed as hard as I could. I had hoped that he would agree to my request, but it is regrettable that he did not," he told reporters. "I am deeply disappointed that they have missed a very important opportunity."

The high-profile snub came after the UN head had initially asked General Than Shwe for a meeting with the detained opposition leader during two hours of talks on Friday evening in the remote administrative capital, Naypyitaw. He was made to wait overnight for the decision and was then told that a meeting would be impossible because the opposition leader's trial was ongoing.

As he last night left Burma empty-handed, having met with foreign ambassadors in Rangoon, the Secretary General faced renewed criticism from campaigners and members of the international community – Britain among them – who believed that he should not have gone. Many warned that by coming away with nothing, Mr Ban was merely providing the regime with a propaganda coup.

Yet others were not surprised, not least by the generals' decision not to allow him to visit Ms Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide election victory in 1990 only for the result to be ignored by the junta. It was at that time that the opposition leader was first imprisoned, for a period of three years. She was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since then she has spent almost 14 of the past 19 years under house arrest, the world's most prominent political prisoner. On occasion, the junta has made clear it would release her if she agreed to leave Burma but she has always chosen to remain a part of her country's struggle. In 1999, while temporarily free, she faced the dilemma of whether to visit her dying husband, the British academic Michael Aris, who had prostate cancer and who was refused a visa to enter Burma. Fearful that if she left she would never be allowed to return, she stayed in Burma without seeing her husband again. "Since we live in this world, we have to do our best for this world," she once told an interviewer.

Those are typically brave words from a woman whose life has been blighted by political opponents almost from the start. She was a mere toddler in 1948 when her father, who had negotiated Burma's independence from Britain a year earlier, was assassinated. The mantle of the country's democracy movement passed eventually to her mother, and then – after her graduation from Oxford, postgraduate studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and time spent working for the UN – to her.

Mark Farmaner, of the Burma Campaign UK, said the reason for her continued detention was very simple. In a country that has been brutalised by violence and the fear of violence, ordinary people will still, in private, whisper about the "the lady" and how she could help fix their broken land.

"It might be one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world but they are terrified of this one woman," he added. "They hoped by keeping her detained the world would forget about Burma, but the opposite has happened. The fact that she has now spent 5,000 days in detention should shame world leaders who have tolerated this situation."

The current charges against Ms Suu Kyi were brought in May after John Yettaw, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran, swam across Rangoon's Inya Lake to her home. Apparently, the opposition leader was not pleased by the intrusion – realising what it would mean for her – but let him sleep on the floor. Her supporters later complained to the authorities about the breakdown in security at her supposedly heavily guarded home.

After she was charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest, her supporters claimed that the regime was using the incident as an excuse to keep her locked up until after an election is held next year. The planned election has been widely condemned as a sham that will do nothing other than cement the regime's control, and the NLD is to boycott proceedings.

Aung Din, a former political prisoner who now heads the US Campaign for Burma, said the regime believes that by holding the election it will be seen as a legitimate government by the international community. "It is extremely important for the regime that its crony candidates should secure almost all of seats to be contested in the election.

"[Ms Suu Kyi] is the serious and major obstacle for the regime to achieve its objective. If she is released, she will be able to revive the NLD and organise the people to stand up together for positive changes... That's why the regime is trying to extend her detention."

Of course, Ms Suu Kyi is just the best known of an estimated 2,000 or more political prisoners being held by the regime. Many of these were rounded up in the aftermath of pro-democracy demonstrations in the summer and autumn of 2007, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary people and Buddhist monks marched through the streets of Burma's biggest cities calling for change.

Members of a group of activists called the 88 Generation Students Group were imprisoned for up to 65 years. A monk who had helped organise the protest, Ashin Gambira, was jailed for a similar period. In a deliberate effort to make their jail terms more harsh, they have been sent to prisons away from Rangoon, making it harder for their families to visit.

Over the years, the conditions of Ms Suu Kyi's imprisonment have changed. Once she occupied herself playing the piano and was permitted visits from diplomats. But in recent years, the terms have been tightened and now the only visits are with her lawyer, occasional meetings with senior members of her party and a supposedly regular, but often blocked, check-up from her doctor. She did not even learn of Mr Ban's visit to Burma and his request to meet her until her lawyer informed her last Thursday.

Despite her isolation from ordinary Burmese people, the power she holds remains obvious. In September 2007, at the height of the protests, a group of monks marched to her house to pay their respects. Earlier this year, Agga, one of those monks, described the moment when Ms Suu Kyi emerged from her house.

"We tried to talk with her but there were soldiers between her and ourselves. She seemed to be so sad, she seemed to have tears in her eyes," said the monk, who has fled Burma and is now living in the US. "Then the monks gave respect to her as if she was their mother.

"It was strange to see her, but we were very happy to see her."

Countdown to custody: Nobel prize winner and political prisoner

January 1948 Burma becomes independent

September 1987 Currency devaluation wipes out many people's savings and triggers anti-government riots

July 1989 The ruling junta declares martial law. National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi is put under house arrest

May 1990 The NLD wins parliamentary elections in a landslide. The junta ignores the result

October 1991 Ms Suu Kyi wins Nobel Peace Prize

July 1995 She is released from house arrest

May 2003 She is taken into "protective custody" after clashes between supporters on both sides

September 2007 Buddhist monks hold a series of anti-government protests

April 2008 Government publishes proposed new constitution, which allocates a quarter of seats in parliament to the military. It also bans Ms Suu Kyi from holding office

May 2009 John William Yettaw visits the dissident leader at her house. Government charges her with violating the terms of her detention

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in