Suu Kyi too hot for Asia's most brutal regime to handle

Burma's political heroine has spent 15 of the past 20 years under arrest. Now, as the country goes to the polls, her fate hangs in the balance

Peter Popham
Sunday 07 November 2010 01:00 GMT

She is by some stretch the most abused political heroine alive today. She has been confined to her crumbling family home in Rangoon for more than 15 of the past 20 years. Her two sons, Alex and Kim, have for many years been barred from visiting her – Kim, now 33, is in Bangkok trying to get a visa so he can see his mother for the first time in 10 years. The last wish of her gravely ill husband, Michael Aris – to die in her arms – was brutally snubbed.

But in one week's time all that could be in the past and Aung San Suu Kyi could walk through the rusty iron gates of 54 University Avenue, Rangoon, a free woman again.

Or will she?

It was Burma's dictator, Senior General Than Shwe, in person who decreed that Ms Suu Kyi should be released on 13 November. Back in May 2009 she was sentenced to three years' house arrest for allowing an American religious fanatic, John Yettaw, who had swum across Inya Lake to see her, to stay overnight in her house: under the Burmese dictatorship, house guests must be registered with the authorities before they are allowed to stay in private homes. But after sentence was passed, a messenger from the Senior General burst into the courtroom to announce that, in his great mercy, he was cutting the sentence in half, to 18 months.

But that was then, when new elections were merely a vague commitment. Now that the date has nearly arrived, nothing is sure.

Last week, as the Burmese prepared to vote for the first time since they gave Ms Suu Kyi's party a landslide victory 20 years ago, tensions were mounting. Battle-tested troops, identified by their red bandanas and much feared because of their murderous role in suppressing protests in the past, were posted along major roads in the former capital. Trucks packed with navy-blue-uniformed Lon Thein riot police were seen moving around. Clubs and restaurants closed early amid rumours of an impending declaration of martial law.

And there were other signs of official nervousness. On Friday, this correspondent was taken to the airport by immigration police and put on the first available flight to Bangkok for the "crime" of making contact with members of Ms Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy. I was one of at least three undercover foreign journalists deported last week.

Foreign journalists have been banned from Burma, with the rarest of exceptions, ever since the coup of 1962. Whenever news broke since then, they have been entering the country as tourists and doing their job as best they could.

It has never been easy but it has probably never been as nerve-racking as now. You leave behind any documents that mention Ms Suu Kyi or her party. You keep your computer's hard drive as clean of Burma material as possible. Before arriving you set up a gmail account under a false name (gmail being the only form of email that works) and arrange to file under a pseudonym. From an untraceable public phone you call the contacts you have been given and arrange to meet somewhere neutral. If you are wise (as I was not) you change hotels every two or three days to make it harder for the agents of military intelligence to follow you.

You behave, in other words, exactly like a drug-smuggler or terrorist. Of course, you are in breach of your visa. But what is it you are trying to do? To obtain the views of the most successful Burmese political party of the past 50 years, with the country on the threshold of political change; a party committed since the outset to non-violence and the democratic process.

Which prompts a question: if the modest reporting endeavours of a handful of foreigners are such a problem for the junta, how will it cope with the Lady when she gets behind a microphone again – the one person in the country capable, with a few well-chosen words, of galvanising not only millions of her own people but the leaders of the free world as well?

Although the regime some weeks ago confirmed Ms Suu Kyi's release date, there is no certainty that it will abide by this. The man who has for several years been her link to the outside world, her lawyer, Nyan Win, has been given no indication. A senior Western diplomat in Rangoon said he had heard nothing either way. "There are three scenarios," he said. "They set her free unconditionally; they agree to let her out but on certain conditions; or they don't let her out at all. Than Shwe is known to be stronger on tactics than strategy, and I suspect he will decide depending on what happens in the election."

A sweeping victory in the election for the junta's two proxy parties is a foregone conclusion – they have far more candidates than any of the other parties, far more money, and in dozens of seats are standing unopposed. One can speculate that a thumping win for the generals' friends would make them more relaxed about having Ms Suu Kyi at large again. But even so, the omens for her release are not good.

For her and her party, the tide has been running the wrong way ever since 2003. Despite the release date, there is no sign of it turning any time soon. The last time she was released was in May 2002, when the mood was very different. As The Independent's South Asia correspondent, I flew into Rangoon as a tourist and spent days hanging around her party's HQ waiting for a chance to interview her.

Unbothered by the authorities, I also met veteran Burmese journalists, academics and people who claimed to be close to the regime. All agreed that the second most powerful man in the junta, military-intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt, who had engineered a meeting between Ms Suu Kyi and Than Shwe back in 1994, was committed to a reconciliation. When I met her, Ms Suu Kyi herself cautiously voiced the same hopes.

But the hoped-for talks went nowhere. Ms Suu Kyi went back on the road, addressing huge, enthusiastic crowds wherever she went. Then on 30 May 2003, little more than a year after her release, her convoy was set upon by regime thugs in Depayin, in the north of the country. Dozens of party supporters were murdered and Ms Suu Kyi herself narrowly avoided being killed. She was taken to Rangoon's notorious Insein jail, and later put back under house arrest. General Khin Nyunt was later purged and is himself still under house arrest.

Ever since, the junta has been trying to marginalise Ms Suu Kyi and her party, and has largely succeeded. The master stroke came in the spring when it was announced that parties with members in jail or under house arrest could not register to take part in the election. Her party would have to expel Ms Suu Kyi before registering. She herself came out strongly against participating in the election under such conditions, and the party fell into line behind her, though some members broke away to form new parties.

NLD supporters argue that the party had no choice but to spurn the polls. But by doing so it enabled the regime to dissolve the party, robbing it of legitimacy – and making it easier to justify harassing people like myself trying to report on its views and activities. The party fell into the junta's trap and allowed itself to be driven underground.

There is always the opinion of the outside world for the junta to worry about – and if the generals find a pretext for extending Ms Suu Kyi's house arrest, or put such stringent conditions on her release that she refuses to accept them, the world will howl. But Than Shwe is used to that howling. There is no sign that it troubles his sleep.

My main offence last week was to interview a leonine Burmese journalist called U Win Tin, an NLD founder. Now 81, he spent 19 years in Insein jail for his political activities, almost entirely in solitary confinement.

He was eloquent about the love and support Ms Suu Kyi still enjoys in Burma. "When people like me or U Tin Oo [another senior party member] were released it was like pouring water in a flower-pot," he told me. "But if Suu Kyi is released it will be like the coming of the monsoon... If she is released today, she will go to the people tomorrow."

The world would expect no less – but on what basis will she go? In the past it was as symbol and co-founder of Burma's biggest party, and as the unhonoured winner of the general election. If she goes to the people now, it will be as leader of a party that has been formally dissolved, that played no role in the elections, and whose members are treated like criminals. The junta has buried her party, and her historic victory with it, leaving her in limbo.

U Win Tin admits that the future is too dark to read. "The military power in Burma is so big you cannot predict what will happen," he told me. "The regime is afraid of her popularity. That's why there is political deadlock. The only thing we can say is that we have faith, and a good leader, and although we have been dissolved we are not going to go away. But nobody can tell what will happen."

PM to push for action by Beijing

David Cameron will this week challenge Beijing over China's influence in Burma and demand the unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose house arrest is due to expire in six days.

He is expected to use a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Tuesday to raise "strong views" about human rights abuses in neighbouring Burma, which today goes to the polls for the first time since Ms Suu Kyi's victory 21 years ago. Her NLD party has been dissolved by the junta, and William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said the result is "a foregone conclusion". Yesterday, opposition officials claimed voters had been told they could lose their jobs if they fail to vote for military-backed candidates.

In a 2008 article for The IoS, Mr Cameron hailed Ms Suu Kyi as "Burma's democratic heroine", adding she was "a symbol of the tragedy of Burma, but also its hope for a brighter tomorrow".

Matt Chorley

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