Sacrificing Herself for Her Cause
She is known simply as The Lady. She lives in isolation in her old family home on a quiet lake in the northern part of the city. Armed guards make sure she doesn’t leave. Her only known visitor is the doctor who checks on her monthly. She is said to spend her time meditating and reading.
The world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent nearly 10 of the last 16 years under house arrest or behind bars. There is no sign that Myanmar’s brutal military regime plans to free her any time soon.
Sunday, the devout Buddhist, who received the prize in 1991 for her nonviolent struggle for democracy in Myanmar, will turn 60. Supporters around the globe will hold protests and concerts in more than a dozen cities, but no public celebration is planned here for fear of government retribution.
Myanmar, formerly called Burma, has been under military rule since a coup d’etat in 1962. In 1988, amid violent protests, the army massacred thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in the capital Rangoon, now called Yangon, and other cities, leading to another coup.
The new military leaders held national assembly elections in 1990 in which the National League for Democracy, which Suu Kyi helped found, won 82% of the seats. But the junta refused to hand over power. A committee of generals has run the country ever since.
The United States and other nations imposed economic and political sanctions aimed at securing Suu Kyi’s freedom. But they have helped cripple the economy, and the dictatorship headed by Sr. Gen. Than Shwe remains firmly in command. Once one of the wealthiest nations in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is now one of the poorest.
The country is mostly isolated from the outside world. There are none of the McDonald’s, Starbucks or KFC outlets here that have become ubiquitous in Southeast Asian cities. Instead, workers crowd into dilapidated buses carrying shiny, metal cylinder lunch boxes with separate trays for their rice, curry and vegetables. Women commonly walk down the streets of central Yangon carrying goods on their heads.
Secret police and a network of informers watch over the populace. Listening to overseas radio broadcasts or watching foreign shows on satellite television can result in seven years in prison. Foreign journalists are rarely allowed to visit.
Dissidents are arrested in the middle of the night and vanish into the prison system. There are more than 1,300 political detainees, rights groups say, including other leaders of Suu Kyi’s party. Members of the public interviewed for this article asked not to be identified out of fear for their safety.
Around the world, Suu Kyi (pronounced Sue Chee) is celebrated for her advocacy of nonviolence to achieve democracy. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Thursday that instead of being under house arrest, she should be “out amongst the people and her supporters, pushing for stability and ... democratization of her society.”
Rock musicians, including Paul McCartney, U2 and Pearl Jam, have dedicated songs to her. In a concert Sunday in Ireland, REM plans to perform a song for her that will be beamed into Myanmar by satellite even though it will be illegal to watch it. On Friday, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) tried to deliver 6,000 birthday cards for Suu Kyi at the Myanmar Embassy in Washington. No one accepted them.
Those who know Suu Kyi describe her as charming, brilliant and idealistic. Slender and graceful, she dresses in traditional Burmese attire and often wears a flower in her hair. The daughter of beloved independence leader Aung San, she is widely admired for her principled stand and self-sacrifice.
Suu Kyi believes the military should honor the results of the 1990 election and transfer power to the National League for Democracy, which she heads as general secretary. She has repeatedly demanded the release of political prisoners, including leaders of her party.
Although she projects a sense of calm, she can be exacting and formidable. “This is a very tough lady,” said a Western diplomat who has met with her numerous times. “She is very focused. She is willing to put up with a lot to defend the principles that she sees as important. Compromise is not necessarily a term she is comfortable with.”
Some diplomats in Yangon suggest she might have done more when she was free to bring about dialogue with the regime and work out a power-sharing agreement, as Nelson Mandela did in South Africa.
“The moral high ground is the place where she feels most comfortable,” another diplomat said. “She has an idealistic view of the world. I don’t think she has been prepared to make some slightly dirty compromises to move the situation forward.”
Yet it’s unclear whether anyone inside the country could persuade the regime to make compromises.
In October, Than Shwe ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Gen. Khin Nyunt, who had proposed a “road map” to democracy. The general, who ranked third in the ruling committee and served as chief of military intelligence, was charged with corruption. His two sons, 38 of his subordinates and his fortuneteller have been sent to prison.
Earlier, Than Shwe imprisoned the family of former ruler Ne Win for allegedly plotting a coup. Sanda Win, the late general’s influential daughter, is under house arrest across the lake from Suu Kyi.
Human rights groups cite a long list of the regime’s alleged abuses: killing some political opponents and imprisoning and torturing others without trial, raping and killing women in conflict zones, enslaving people and forcing them to build roads and work in the fields. The army has conscripted 70,000 child soldiers, more than any other nation, critics say, and grows the most opium after Afghanistan.
In 2003, during her last period of freedom, Suu Kyi traveled in northern Myanmar, where large numbers of people gathered to see her. At one stop, she climbed atop a firetruck to face down police and firefighters who planned to turn water hoses on the crowd.
Later, government-backed thugs armed with clubs and sharpened bamboo sticks attacked her motorcade outside the village of Dipeyin. Some believe the assault was an assassination attempt.
Suu Kyi’s bodyguards and supporters fended off the attackers and saved her by shielding her with their bodies. The government says four people died in the attack; the opposition says the toll may have reached 200. Suu Kyi suffered minor injuries.
Soon after, the regime arrested the charismatic leader for the third time, saying it was for her own protection.
While Suu Kyi has gained global fame, the dictatorship that locked her up remains something of a mystery. Than Shwe, 74, who assumed power at the head of a military committee in 1992, prefers to rule from behind the scenes. The junta, previously called the State Law and Order Restoration Council, is now known by the equally Orwellian State Peace and Development Committee.
The general rose to power through the army psychological warfare unit and is reported to love Chinese kung fu movies. He is said to believe in numerology, popular in Myanmar, and rely on his fortuneteller for advice.
The regime promotes the concept of “disciplined democracy,” in which the army safeguards the rights of the people and is entitled to a prominent role in government. The regime says it cannot hand power to a civilian administration until it completes its new constitution, now 14 years in the making.
In a country where women are subordinate and respect for elders is paramount, the generals find it especially irritating to be told what to do by the likes of Suu Kyi, diplomats say.
“The officials say she is conceited and condescending because she is so principled and outspoken,” said a Western diplomat. “She will say things that senior generals in Burma usually don’t hear. There is a fair amount of personal animosity towards her on the part of some of the generals.”
Suu Kyi herself is a general’s daughter. Her father was assassinated in 1947 at the age of 32. Suu Kyi was 2.
Even as a child, Suu Kyi displayed remarkable determination. She overcame her fear of the dark, she once said, by forcing herself to walk around in the middle of the night.
Her mother, Khin Kyi, was appointed ambassador to India and Suu Kyi attended Catholic high school and college in New Delhi. There she was greatly influenced by the nonviolent philosophy of independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi.
She went on to Oxford University in Britain, where she met and later married Michael Aris, an expert on Tibet. They had two sons and lived a life far removed from the repression of her homeland.
She returned to Myanmar in 1988 to nurse her ailing mother and found herself in the midst of an upheaval. With the economy in a shambles, longtime ruler Ne Win stepped down and demonstrators took to the streets demanding democracy.
In August, troops opened fire on demonstrators in cities across the country. Many of the bodies were dumped in rivers or disappeared. No one knows how many protesters were killed but some estimate at least 3,000. The massacre is remembered by its date: 8/8/88.
Eighteen days later, Suu Kyi spoke at the golden Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon’s most important landmark; 100,000 people came to hear Aung San’s daughter. She called the fight for democracy the second struggle for national independence, and her speech propelled her to the forefront of the movement.
The military regime placed her under house arrest in 1989 without charges or trial. Even so, her party swept the elections the following year, stunning the generals, who had expected pro-military parties to win.
Suu Kyi was freed in 1995 and invited to leave the country, but she refused, knowing she would not be allowed to return. She understood she was being forced to choose between her family and her country. A longtime friend says she told her husband, “Consider me dead.”
She last saw Aris in 1996, when he was allowed to visit. As he was dying of cancer in 1999, the regime refused to let him enter the country in the hope that she would leave to see him.
The U.S. imposed sanctions on Myanmar in 1991, but China, India, Thailand and Singapore continue to do business here.
Teachers are paid the equivalent of $8 a month. Doctors are paid $15.
“It’s not changing the regime,” a Yangon intellectual said. “It’s just making life difficult for people.”
Officially, one in three children suffers from malnutrition; the real number may be much higher, putting the country on par with some of the most destitute nations in Africa. HIV is rampant.
“It’s a desperate situation, and people are dying,” said one international aid official who questions whether sanctions are doing any good. “The people are beautiful and kind. It’s heartbreaking to see them suffer the way they do, especially the children.”
Myanmar’s isolation from the West has kept the country in a kind of time warp where many traditions remain intact.
Most men wear a longyi, a sarong-like garment that reaches nearly to the ankles. Women and children wear a striking yellow sunscreen that is made from the bark of the thanaka tree. Women spread thanaka on their cheeks in circles, rectangles or swirls, sometimes to stunning effect.
In central Yangon, life spills onto the streets. Families set up little kitchens in the roadway. Women sit in busy avenues selling vegetables. On the sidewalks, craftsmen make signs and mend clothes or umbrellas. Some shopkeepers run generators on the sidewalk to cope with power outages. Others set up small tables with telephones, charging 10 cents a call. Children claiming to be orphans beg for money.
Corruption has reportedly invaded nearly every aspect of commerce.
At the post office, people mailing a letter tip the clerk so she will mark the stamp instead of peeling it off and selling it. At hospitals, patients pay orderlies so they can see a doctor. “Even if blood is pumping from your artery, unless you tip the gurney operator, you will die on the stretcher,” a diplomat said.
More overtly, the regime maintains control through countless restrictions. Anyone who allows guests to stay overnight must report their names to the police.
Access to Internet sites is limited and e-mail is delayed so government minders have time to read it. There are few cellphones, and foreign publications are censored.
Some people get around it, including Internet users who have become expert at accessing restricted websites. Others listen to the BBC and Voice of America on radio despite the ban. Illegal satellite dishes have sprouted from rooftops, allowing millions to watch overseas broadcasts.
Security in Yangon has been tighter than ever since May 7, when bombs exploded minutes apart at two shopping malls and a trade show. By official count, 23 people were killed and more than 160 were injured. The government has blamed the blasts on pro-democracy activists, the CIA and the Thai government. No suspects have been arrested.
Perhaps because of the Buddhist tradition of patience, or perhaps because resistance seems futile, the people of Myanmar wait quietly, work to feed their families and wish for the regime to collapse. Some hope reincarnation will free them from their hardships.
“In my next life,” said a 47-year-old worker, “I want to come back in another country.”
After Suu Kyi’s arrest in 2003, there was talk of a compromise that might lead to her release. But since the arrest of Khin Nyunt, the most Westernized of the generals, there has been no negotiation. The last time a United Nations envoy visited Suu Kyi was 15 months ago.
The leaders of her political party, many of them retired generals from her father’s era, plan to mark her 60th birthday by making large donations of food to Buddhist monasteries.
If Suu Kyi sticks to her regimen, she will rise early on her birthday to meditate. She might spend time with the two maids who live in the house and look after her. She is unlikely to have any chocolate, which she loves, or play the piano, which is said to be broken.
As always, anyone who approaches Suu Kyi’s house will be stopped at police checkpoints, and army photographers will take their pictures before sending them away or arresting them.
But if her experience in detention is any guide, Suu Kyi will spend the day with the sense of celebration that comes from standing up for what she believes is right.
“You know, I always felt free,” she said in a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times after her first six years in detention.
“I felt free when I was under house arrest because it was my choice. I chose to do what I’m doing and because of that I found peace within myself. And I suppose that is what freedom is all about.”