In the popular myth, the future of Myanmar, which the world knows as Burma, has become a struggle between two ghosts.
One is the "ghost" of Ne Win, the superstitious and often mercurial general who seized power in 1962 and proceeded to make a prosperous country into a hermit state with a bankrupt economy. Although a collection of military officers calling themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council staged a "coup" in September, 1988, Ne Win still is widely seen as the invisible hand at the helm of the country's affairs.
The other "ghost" in the myth is Aung San Suu Kyi, the 44-year-old general secretary of the National League for Democracy, whom the military has kept under house arrest since July 20, 1989.
Suu Kyi is the charismatic daughter of the nation's independence hero, Aung San, and she became a symbol of the people's opposition to three decades of military rule in Myanmar.
In a move that surprised many Western students of Myanmar as well as the opposition themselves, the military permitted relatively free elections to be held on May 27. As the results trickled in, it became clear that the National League for Democracy had won a stunning landslide victory.
According to the final returns released by the military authorities at the end of June, the league captured 396 of the 485 seats in the new National Assembly, with another four seats in alliance with the NLD. The National Unity Party, political heir to the government's tame Burma Socialist Program Party, won only 10 seats.
But despite the NLD's overwhelming victory, Suu Kyi remains a prisoner in her family home overlooking Inya Lake in Yangon (which until last year was known as Rangoon). Recent visitors to Yangon said that after the election, a detachment of soldiers set up sandbags around the perimeter of the home. She is guarded by a contingent of 300 soldiers and police stationed at pillboxes around the house. They shoo away the curious before they can approach.
Kyi Maung, who is the acting president of the league, said in a telephone interview that the NLD's first action after the election results were announced was to demand the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and about 200 other league officials who are in jail. Another prisoner is Tin Oo, the party's chairman, who is serving three years of hard labor.
"We want to get her out," Kyi Maung said. "Aung San Suu Kyi plays a role no one else can fill."
A key test of the government's intentions after the elections will come on July 20, the first anniversary of Suu Kyi's detention. When she was placed under house arrest, the government said the incarceration could last "up to one year," suggesting that the military will now be forced either to release her or renew the detention order.
In the circumstances, a renewal of house arrest is bound to be highly unpopular, and diplomats have expressed concern that it could provide the spark for renewed disturbances similar to the pro-democracy demonstrations in August, 1988, which the government ruthlessly suppressed, leaving an estimated 3,000 dead.
Gen. Saw Maung, who officially heads the military regime, warned last week that "we will not tolerate a recurrence of the 1988 situation and will not tolerate the endangerment of our three basic duties--preventing disintegration of the union, preventing disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuating national independence and sovereignty."
Saw Maung also dashed the opposition's hopes for a speedy transfer of power, saying that the drafting of a new constitution would be a long and complicated process that must be completed before the victors are allowed to take over.
A spokesman for the regime said last week that parliamentary representatives from all of the winning parties must meet on the new constitution before the army meets with them. The statement effectively ruled out early talks between the military and the victorious opposition.
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi has been elevated to the status of a martyred saint by the opposition, with her plight a rallying cry for the downtrodden. Although she is cut off from all contact with her followers, rumors about her swirl through the streets of Yangon.
One story reported that the government had to keep changing the guard outside her home because Suu Kyi's charisma was so infectious (indeed, the NLD even did well in the elections at military encampments). Another report said that Suu Kyi had been forced to sell her piano to raise money because she refused to accept funds from the military to survive, even turning down the money from a government pension.
Western diplomats in Yangon said it seemed unlikely that the military would set free such a potent adversary while so much is still up in the air. They said that if negotiations on a new constitution appear to be going smoothly--in other words, not threatening to the military--she could be released.
Nonetheless, Ne Win, a believer in numerology and astrology, must still be regretting the day that the fates brought Aung San Suu Kyi back home.
Suu Kyi left her homeland when she was only 15. Her father, Aung San, who led the independence movement against Britain and who remains an immensely popular figure, had been assassinated along with six ministerial colleagues by political rivals in 1948.
In 1960, her mother, Khin Kyi, a prominent politician, was appointed ambassador to India. Suu Kyi attended high school in New Delhi, then received a degree from Oxford University in England. She married a British researcher, Michael Aris, and the couple had two sons while traveling the world from Bhutan to Kyoto in Japan.
Suu Kyi interrupted graduate study in London to return to Myanmar in April, 1988, to care for her mother, who had suffered a stroke. By August, the streets were full of pro-democracy demonstrators carrying photos of her father, and Suu Kyi came under increasing pressure to speak out.
On Aug. 25, she addressed a huge crowd near Yangon's Shwe Dagon pagoda, receiving thunderous cheers when she spoke, according to Bertil Linter, a Swedish journalist who writes about Myanmar for the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review. "People have been saying that I know nothing of Burmese politics," Suu Kyi was quoted as saying. "The trouble is I know too much. My family knows better than any how devious Burmese politics can be and how much my father had to suffer on this account."
The demonstrations--and government killings--continued until Sept. 18, when the State Law and Order Restoration Council, known in Myanmar as SLORC, was announced. In just three days, more than 500 demonstrators were killed before order was restored.
By Sept. 24, Suu Kyi, Tin Oo and another opposition politician, Aung Gyi, had established the NLD to take part in the government's promised free elections.
In the weeks that followed, Suu Kyi spoke out increasingly against the military government and specifically targeted Ne Win, who had never been publicly criticized before.
The government countered with slander campaigns against Suu Kyi, calling her a prostitute for having married a foreigner and accusing her of sexual indiscretions. In a famous incident, an army captain trying to halt an opposition march ordered his squad to shoot her down, but she fearlessly continued to walk down the center of the street through the kneeling soldiers, who held their fire. In an interview she gave a week before her detention, Suu Kyi said the government was accusing her of seeking to foment violence. She denied that this was her goal.
"Civil disobedience has a great history," she said. "That is why I mention Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Mahatma Gandhi was no Communist. Martin Luther King said to the people, 'I have a dream.' Well, it's the same with us. We just want to bring our dreams to reality."
She became increasingly strident in her criticism of the government, calling off a march July 19--the anniversary of her father's death--only because of the real danger that government troops would open fire. "They are acting like a fascist government," Suu Kyi said, "and like fascists, the only language they understand is confrontation."
On July 21, a government spokesman said Suu Kyi and Tin Oo had been arrested because they had tried to "cause hatred between the people and the defense forces."
In the end, history may show that Tin Oo, a former general, has the greater influence in working out a compromise with the military government, which includes a number of his former colleagues.
But as Tin Oo said before his arrest, Suu Kyi has "become the image of our whole country."
Name: Aung San Suu Kyi
Title: General secretary of the opposition National League for Democracy.
Family: She is the daughter of the nation's independence hero, Aung San, who was assassinated in 1948. Her mother, Khin Kyi, a prominent politician, was appointed ambassador to India in 1960. Suu Kyi and her husband Michael Aris, a British researcher, have two sons.
Education: She attended high school in New Delhi, then received a degree from Oxford University in England.
Quote: "Civil disobedience has a great history. That is why I mention Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King. Mahatma Gandi was no Communist. Martin Luther King said to the people, 'I have a dream.' Well, it's the same with us. We just want to bring our dreams to reality."