A known subversive

January 20, 1995

Five and a half years ago, the wife of an Oxford academic was deemed such a threat to the military government of Burma that it placed her under house arrest. Today the world will discover if it feels safe enough to let her out. Barbara Bradley reports

No one quite knew what to expect on the morning of August 26, 1988. Driven by curiosity, hundreds of thousands of people walked through the early light of Rangoon and settled on the muddy grass before the Shwedagon Pagoda. Burmese monks and university students searched the crowd for explosives. There had been a bomb scare, and rumours that someone would try to assassinate the speaker.

Only two weeks earlier, an estimated 1,000 people in Rangoon alone had been killed in a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown by Burma's military government, creating an undercurrent of tension on this August morning. But there was also a certain euphoria: after the crackdown, the military government had resigned, replaced by a civilian head of state, and people believed that this was the moment for them to seize power. So it was with no little fascination that some half million people fell silent as a slight woman stepped up to the microphone -- Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman unknown to the nation, but whose family name was a Burmese legend. "People were so anxious to see her, and so anxious to hear what she was going to say,'' recalls one Burmese woman who attended the speech. "We were hungry for a leader. But we wanted to judge her as well, to see whether she could lead us, because we had heard of her as the daughter of General Aung San, but no more."

By the time Aung San Suu Kyi completed her ten-minute speech, many believed that Burma's political vacuum had been filled. Suu Kyi looked and spoke exactly like her father, General Aung San, who had led Burma to independence four decades earlier. Aung San had been assassinated in 1947 before an election that would have brought him to power -- making room for his colleague, Ne Win, to eventually seize control and maintain it for 26 years of repression.

Now, barely a month after Ne Win resigned, General Aung San's daughter had appeared. Aung San Suu Kyi's speech at the Shwedagon would change the course of Asian history, and transform this academic housewife from Oxford into a national icon, a political prisoner, and a Nobel laureate.

Aung San Suu Kyi's five-and-a-half year detention in her Burmese home officially expires today, according to Burmese military intelligence sources. If she is released, the question is whether this woman who captivated the nation in 1988 is still relevant to the Burma of 1995 -- or whether the economy and political process have moved so far along that Suu Kyi is nothing more than an image in the rear-view mirror.

Despite her famous name, Suu Kyi seemed destined for anything but a political career in Burma. She left the country when she was 15, following her mother, a newly appointed ambassador, to New Delhi in 1960. Four years later Suu Kyi moved to England to study politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford University. From the moment she arrived at St Hugh's College, says Ann Pasternak Slater, Suu seemed a bit out of place in the fluid, rebellious 1960s. "It was the era of flower-power hippiedom,'' says Pasternak Slater, who was a close friend, "and Suu -- even in terms of clothes -- was the opposite. Our clothes were all baggy and floppy and swirly, and hers were tight and crisp.'' Suu Kyi did not seem to be preparing herself for international attention, as did another Oxford student, Benazir Bhutto. Rather she took a more low-key approach, moving to New York, where she worked for the United Nations. "I would have predicted, given her qualities, that she would simply follow a much more routine road into the diplomatic service and become a high-ranking diplomat,'' says Pasternak Slater, "rather than a political exile and martyr.'' But if others failed to predict her future role, Suu Kyi herself foresaw the possibility. In a letter to her fiance, Michael Aris, in 1972, she wrote: "I only ask one thing; that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them."

As it turned out, that duty would wait 18 years. In the interim, Suu Kyi married Aris, now a professor at Oxford, and they raised two boys, Alexander and Kim, in North Oxford. During the 1980s, Suu Kyi made frequent trips back to Burma, where she visited her mother and gathered material about her father at the National Archives in Rangoon. And she continued her study of Burmese history as a visiting scholar at the Center for South-east Asian Studies at Kyoto University in Japan in 1985.

She steered clear of Burmese living in Britain -- both the diplomats and the opponents of the government -- which provoked resentment from those who wanted her to get involved. "She didn't want to fritter away her energy and time in all sorts of bickerings and disputes in the exiled Burmese community, which was deeply riven and deeply suspicious of each other,'' explains Peter Carey, a friend and professor at Oxford. "She wanted to keep her powder dry for something else."

That something else was set in motion by a telephone call on March 31, 1988. Suu Kyi's mother had suffered a severe stroke, and two days later she was at her side in Rangoon. The country she returned to was bristling with political upheaval; a leaderless revolution against the military regime of General Ne Win. In the spring and summer of 1988, Suu Kyi kept a low profile, living with her mother in the hospital. But some opponents of the government began to pressure her to join the political fray. One asset, of course, was her name; but just as important, her life in the west had left her unmarred by connections to the military. "Every potential leader in the country was tainted by personal ambition, but she was clear,'' says one close friend who counselled her at the time. "She had only one purpose -- to help the Burmese people, and to end her father's unfinished work.'' On July 23, as democracy protests swelled the streets, Ne Win stunned the country by announcing his resignation and suggesting a referendum on multi-party democracy. When a much-loathed general replaced him, however, thousands of Burmese took to the streets in a massive strike, provoking the military crackdown just two weeks later.

Over the summer Suu Kyi had grown distressed about the economic and political hardship she saw on the streets of Rangoon, according to one close friend, and had made up her mind to join the democracy movement even before the crackdown. As she explained in her speech at the Shwedagon Pagoda two weeks later: "Some might then ask why, if I wished to stay out of politics, should I now be involved in this movement. The answer is that the present crisis is the concern of the entire nation. I could not as my father's daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on. This national crisis could in fact be called the second struggle for national independence.'' These words brought the crowd to its feet, and set the country careering down an unpredictable road towards democracy -- or so they thought. Within a month, the military had re-established control through a military coup, but promised multi-party elections in the future. Suu Kyi immediately formed an opposition party, the National League for Democracy, with two ex-army generals. From October 1988 until her house arrest in July 1989 she criss-crossed the nation, making as many as 25 speeches a day. As her popularity reached mythic proportions, the government began to point out that she had lived much of her life in the west and was married to a foreigner -- worse, a citizen of Britain, Burma's former coloniser. Government officials contended that she could not even speak the language, much less understand the complexities of Burmese politics. This notion was dispelled, however, when Suu Kyi addressed the crowds in elegant, literary Burmese. "She spent most of her life abroad, but what I keep telling people is that she seems to me as if she had been brought up in a small town in Burma by maiden aunts,'' says one colleague.

Suu Kyi's western upbringing may have been a political liability in the government's eyes; but it also allowed her to talk with authority about democracy, a concept that few Burmese had experienced first-hand. "When she was doing the so-called campaigning, none of her speeches was actually saying, 'You must vote for the NLD','' says Zunetta Liddell, a British student who was conducting research in Mandalay at the time. "Her speeches were essentially about what it means to live in a democratic society, the fact that you have rights but also responsibilities . . . She really wasn't standing on a political platform at all.'' Critics -- and there were some, even in the democratic opposition -- say that she had not really developed a cogent political philosophy. She did not present a five-point programme on how to awaken Burma's dormant economy, after 26 ruinous years of socialism. She did not outline solutions to the civil war that had ripped the country apart for nearly four decades.

Rather, she talked of the need to establish democracy through non-violent means, and urged the Burmese people not to back down when their efforts at liberalisation met with military resistance -- which has happened several times in the past three decades. Her essay, "In Quest of Democracy,'' sums it up: "Within the framework of liberal democracy,'' she writes, "protest and dissent can exist in healthy counterpart with orthodoxy and conservatism, contained by a general recognition of the need to balance respect for individual rights with respect for law and order.'' While Suu Kyi's speeches and charisma thrilled audiences, they seemed thin fare for many educated elite. "I asked her, what is your philosophy?'' recalls one opposition member. "Saying 'democracy' is not enough. You need a well-defined ideology.'' He and other political rivals chafe at Suu Kyi's ability to parachute into the country and step into the leadership of the democracy movement. "All this time, she was not interested in politics or in the future of the country,'' he says. "Suu Kyi was trying to take advantage of a political situation that she did not create.'' By the spring of 1989, her popularity was threatening the military regime. So was her defiance. On April 5, Suu Kyi walked through a line of army soldiers who had been ordered to fire if she proceeded. Only at the last moment did an officer intervene, but Suu Kyi's courage secured her a place in popular folklore. After that the military government, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, (Slorc), looked for an excuse to act. It came later the same month, when Suu Kyi -- against the counsel of some of her colleagues -- began to criticise General Ne Win by name. "I think she was pushing her luck,'' says Martin Morland, who was Britain's ambassador to Burma at the time. "It was almost blasphemous. Even for people who disliked Ne Win, it was so shocking to hear him personally attacked.'' Three months and scores of increasingly aggressive speeches later, the inevitable occurred. On July 20, 1989, army trucks surrounded Suu Kyi's home. A few hours later, soldiers escorted the students and NLD party officials who were present on to military trucks and off to jail. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she remains today.

The government said she was being influenced by communists. "We knew these people would exploit her, so it was good for us to put her under house arrest and separate her from these people,'' says one military officer. "That way she wouldn't get in any more trouble.'' About six months after she was detained, Suu Kyi's family visits were suspended, and she lived in almost complete isolation for more than two years. She was told she could walk out of her house at any time, as long as she left the country; but this she has refused to do. Ten months after she was arrested, Burma's first multi-party elections in three decades were held. Suu Kyi's NLD Party won 80 per cent of the seats. The party supported by the government received less than 10 per cent. Shortly thereafter, Slorc announced that the vote was only for a constituent assembly to write a constitution, and not for a parliament. Many of the NLD winners were arrested; others fled the country.

The handling of the election only reinforced the government's pariah status in the international community, which withheld aid and political recognition. An isolation which deepened when Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1991. The award, says one adviser to Slorc, hardened Suu Kyi's position. "She is a prisoner of the Nobel Peace Prize. If you were in her place, after getting the prize, it would be very difficult to give in. You have to stick it out.'' With the possibility of an indefinite standoff, cracks began to form in the government's hardline position toward Suu Kyi in early 1992. In April, General Saw Maung was replaced by General Than Shwe as head of Slorc. At his side was then-Brigadier General Khin Nyunt, head of Burma's military intelligence, thought to have the ear of Ne Win and de facto control of the government. Over the next few months, this more astute team of leaders released political prisoners from jail and began a campaign to gain international acceptance. But of course, they could get nowhere while Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest.

Despite the problems Suu Kyi's detention was causing, the government could not risk releasing her without trying to make her politically irrelevant. To that end, the authorities implemented a two-pronged strategy. First, it jump-started the economy by introducing market reforms. Although the market is not completely free, the liberalisation has brought more tangible prosperity to the country. Second, the government wanted to write a constitution, or at least the guidelines for a constitution, that would place Suu Kyi firmly on the sidelines. Last year the National Assembly -- most of whose 702 delegates were chosen by the government -- agreed on several measures that would bar her from running for parliament, much less running the country.

She is disqualified because she is married to a foreign national and has not lived 20 consecutive years in the country. Government officials point out, correctly and conveniently, that these disqualifications were written by her father in the 1947 constitution. "At the moment she is a political non-entity,'' says one Slorc adviser. "She was able to take advantage of the situation in 1988. She was able to lead a large portion of the country using her father's name, but when it comes down to it, she is not even electable.'' This may be why, western diplomats say, the government has the confidence to deal with Suu Kyi.

In September, Burma's top military leaders, General Than Shwe and Lt. General Khin Nyunt, met with Suu Kyi for the first time in five years. Diplomats and military sources say the government is rushing to iron out an agreement with her before January 20 -- today -- when her detention officially expires. Of course, the government is not bound by the law detaining her. "What action will be taken will be decided by the Council of Ministers,'' says Chief Justice Aung Toe. "The government can amend or even annul any law at any time.'' Diplomats say the government genuinely wants to solve its dilemma. But Suu Kyi has not suffered more than 2,000 days in isolation, separated from her family and friends, just to remain on the moral sidelines once she is out. "She's not going to stop,'' says one friend. "She's going to carry on her activity in one form or the other in order to secure political change in Burma. And the question is, will they work with her so that her political activities don't actually run counter to what they see as their own political interests? Or will they continue to obstruct her in such a way that they will have to put her away again?'' Perhaps answers to these questions will reveal themselves soon enough, as will the fate of the world's most famous political prisoner.

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