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Forsaken but not forgotten: Free Aung San Suu Kyi

As Myanmar’s jailed leader begins her third year in isolation in a jungle prison, we demand: world leaders must no longer look the other way – they must join forces to campaign for her release

Peter Popham
Thursday 28 December 2023 19:06 GMT
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Somewhere in a prison within a prison in the jungles of eastern Myanmar, a frail elderly woman prepares to begin her third year in isolation – with the prospect of living like that for the rest of her life.

If anyone on earth has the inner strength to survive such an ordeal, it is Aung San Suu Kyi. Seventy-eight now, it is more than 30 years since she was first put under house arrest; she has spent 18 years of her life with little company but the sound of her own voice.

The difference this time, and a shameful one, is that a world which for many years lionised her now appears to have written her off.

When she was first detained in her home in 1989, after spearheading a non-violent movement of opposition to the murderous Burmese military junta, she was compared with Gandhi and Mandela and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Many other honours followed.

It is more than 30 years since Aung San Suu Kyi was first put under house arrest (AP)

This time, in February 2021, when her National League for Democracy was about to take office for a second term, sharing power with the military, she and her colleagues were arrested as the army swept democracy aside to seize total power – but the world looked the other way. We didn’t want to know.

Suu Kyi, we declared, was an Islamophobe, the army’s useful idiot, a politician who as state counsellor had in 2017 gone out of her way to defend a campaign against the Rohingya minority in Arakan state which had driven hundreds of thousands of them into exile in Bangladesh.

Nothing could excuse that. Her halo was shattered, the aura of saintliness that her extraordinary beauty had once reinforced long gone.

She was no longer someone to be loved and lionised; and as Myanmar itself was well off most people’s maps, she was no longer even of interest.

Suu Kyi never courted celebrity – she was already in isolation when she first became famous – but she is a classic victim of celebrity culture’s triviality: consumed in happy ignorance, then vomited in distaste.

She made mistakes, blunders even, as a politician, and because her blind spot was Islam, which happens to be our blind spot too, she was beyond redemption.

But that’s not how history will see her, and it’s not how her people see her. For a stubborn majority of Burmese, she remains the one person who has for 35 years given them hope that their 53 million-strong nation’s wretched history might be redeemed.

Aung San Suu Kyi was first arrested after spearheading a non-violent movement of opposition to the Burmese military junta (Pool/AFP/Getty)

The army knows that, and fears it: that’s why, not content with isolating her, the regime has staged a series of show trials on flimsy charges and loaded her with jail sentences totalling 27 years. She faces staying in jail till she is 105.

But perhaps the future will be more interesting than that.

When Suu Kyi, a self-described housewife from Oxford who had returned to Myanmar to nurse her sick mother, led her party to a landslide victory in the general election of 1990, despite being locked in her home, it was the first fair poll for a generation; yet the result was disregarded by the junta.

Twenty years on, by contrast, her party had already been in power for a full five-year term, and in February 2021 was poised to start another; democracy had put down roots. The popular reaction to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s action was fast and furious and countrywide and has never let up.

Myanmar’s chronic problem is that, being an artificial country thrown together at the whim of British imperialists, it has been beset by insurgencies ever since it was born as Burma in 1948.

The army justifies its power by the need to break the rebellions, but its brutality has always had the opposite effect. And this time around it has sparked violent resistance not only in the country’s ethnic fringes but in the heartland, too.

A particular hotspot has been Shan state in the east where ethnic Chinese rebels forced the army into peace talks back in June.

A Burmese proverb runs, “when China spits, Burma swims”. The giant neighbour has always played an outsize role in the country’s destiny.

Aung San Suu Kyi met with President Obama in the White House in 2012 (Getty)

While it remains improbable that the State Administration Council (as the junta calls itself) will be overthrown by rebels, it’s clear that Beijing hates to have such chaos on its doorstep: it’s very bad for business.

Suu Kyi was several times an honoured guest at Chinese state jamborees but that favour has conspicuously not been extended to Min Aung Hlaing.

With Burmese army losses mounting right across the country, and defections now claimed to be 15,000, it’s not impossible that the generals will be forced to swallow a demand for general peace talks; nor, if Min Aung Hlaing were shuffled off into retirement, that the bravest old lady in the world might emerge once more in triumph.

Peter Popham is the author of ‘The Lady and the Peacock’ and ‘The Lady and the Generals’

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