Burma: Globally acclaimed for her dignity & valour, at 65 Suu Kyi still petrifies the military junta Print E-mail

Aung San Suu Kyi's message to the world on the occasion of her 65th birthday: 'please use your liberty to promote ours'


Burma-Thailand ~ Thursday June 17 2010f

Solitude and Dignity


Aung San Suu Kyi celebrates her 65th birthday on Saturday, June 19. It is, however, unlikely that any celebrations will be taking place in her Inya Lake house, confined as she is to indefinite house arrest with only two trusted colleagues for company.

Suu Kyi was first arrested on July 20, 1989, a year after she returned to her homeland to care for her ailing mother. Since that day, she has spent 14 years and eight months in detention out of the past 21 years. In all that time, she has been subjected to constant harassment by the Burmese military government.

Leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi has been under continuous detention since May 30, 2003, when she was arrested following a deadly attack on her convoy and herself, an incident notoriously remembered as the Depayin Massacre.

She has barely seen the outside world since. This is the same woman who succeeded Mikhail Gorbachev as the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1991 and who remains a beacon of hope to the majority of people in Burma.

Nowadays, Burma's prime minister-elect spends her days occupying time by keeping her mind, body and soul active. She practices meditation, reads books, listens to shortwave radio and occasionally watches TV (Burma's state-run television has only two channels).

She has asked her lawyers to bring her books in English and French. Of course, all her materials are checked and scrutinized by security guards before they reach her house. Last year though, economist Joseph Stiglitz was allowed to present her with a book, “Globalization and Its Discontent.”

She can no longer play her piano­one of her passions­as it has been broken for years and she does not have authority to have it fixed. Instead, she has taken up painting. According to her close friends, she has created several canvases. Perhaps one day we will see them.

However, Suu Kyi's life is not as serene as people may imagine. Over the past year, she has been deep in legal struggles. One is an appeal against the 18-month extension of her house arrest. Another is a suit launched against her by her estranged brother Aung San Oo, a US citizen, who claims a share of the family house and has objected to reparation work being carried out on the lakeside property.

Another family drama played out when Suu Kyi's lawyers advised her to file a lawsuit against Khin Maung Aye, one of her relatives who tried to sell a section of the land inside the compound. The state-run press broke the news about the land sale after it came to light during the trial last year of Suu Kyi and “Inya Lake swimmer” John W. Yettaw.

Khin Maung Aye's claims that Suu Kyi's mother had given him a part of the land proved erroneous when evidence emerged that he had no written proof and that Suu Kyi's mother had, in fact, only allowed him to stay temporarily at the Inya lake compound, and as soon as she learned he had begun building, she had him evicted from the property.

If the stress of so many legal proceedings is not keeping her awake at night, the fate of the NLD is surely worrying to the increasingly frail party leader.

She leaked a message through her lawyer that she would not even think of registering the party under the unjust election laws. This message undoubtedly influenced the Central Committee of the NLD to unanimously decide not to take part in this year's election.

Despite the conviction of her stance on the issue, the decision could not have been an easy one for Suu Kyi. She could only look on as the NLD was disbanded on May 7 and some long-term colleagues moved on to create their own political party.

Just a month before, on April 11, Suu Kyi was briefly admitted to Rangoon General Hospital for heart-related problems.

Suu Kyi regularly meets with her lawyers, her family physician and sometimes with a consultant on the renovation work for her home. She has been permitted outside her compound on a few occasions­accompanied by military security of course­to meet with foreign diplomats or the regime's liaison minister ex-Maj-Gen Aung Kyi.

However, the monotony of living alone and isolated for so long must eat at her soul. She will naturally miss her family: her two sons who have grown up without her. She now has grandchildren she has never seen.

Her fight for democracy led her to put her country before her family. Her husband, Englishman Michael Aris, died from cancer in 1999 while she was in detention. He was refused permission to visit her before he died.

Aris, for his part, always appeared to support his wife in her struggle against military rule in Burma. In a letter she wrote to him before their marriage in 1972, she said, "I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them.” He kept his promise till the end.

At her farcical trial last year, Interior Minister Maj-Gen Maung Oo read out a special order from Snr-Gen Than Shwe stating that her sentence­for illegally harboring a foreigner­could be halved and the rest suspended if she “behaved well.”

If her prior record is anything to go by, Suu Kyi will not behave well in the military regime's version of definitions. However, she will continue to behave with dignity, grace and valor.

She once said in an interview: "I don't look upon it as a sacrifice. It's a choice. If you choose to do something, then you shouldn't say it's a sacrifice because nobody forced you to do it."

Suu Kyi has made many hard choices: to leave her family, to live in isolation, to dissolve her party. But it is through her resolute stance in defense of truth, justice and freedom that the people of Burma, and in turn the people of the world, have grown to love and respect this woman.

She has won the battle for hearts and minds.
 London ~ Friday, 18 June 2010, page 2

Aung San Suu Kyi's desperate plea to the world

By Andrew Buncombe, Asia Correspondent
Aung San Suu Kyi's lakeside house in Rangoon where a fence was erected last year (EPA)

As Aung San Suu Kyi prepares to celebrate her 65th birthday tomorrow, confined in the house in which she has spent most of the past two decades, a confidante of the Burmese opposition leader has made a simple but passionate appeal to those in the West to use their freedom to help his country achieve the same.

In a hand-written letter smuggled out of Burma and passed to The Independent, U Win Tin writes: "I want to repeat and echo her own words – 'please use your liberty to promote ours'. I want to add more to it. Please bring more and more liberty to us, to our country, Burma. We are starving for it and we are waiting for someone or some institutions or some countries to bring it to us."

The plea from Ms Suu Kyi's friend and senior political ally, who himself spent almost 20 years in solitary confinement, comes at a desperately difficult time for the opponents of Burma's military junta.

Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been forced to shut down after it decided it could not participate in an election due later this year when she and more than 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars. While a breakaway group of supporters has decided to contest the polls, most independent analysts believe the election will simply further cement the junta's position.

While Ms Suu Kyi has been permitted occasional meetings with diplomats and her lawyers, she remains imprisoned within the lakeside Rangoon home once owned and occupied by her mother.

Analysts say that in the aftermath of the 2007 democracy protests – when tens of thousands of people took to the streets – the military authorities have made a concerted effort to marginalise the Nobel laureate, both physically and politically. Before the authorities had allowed the NLD and its largely frail and ageing membership to splutter on, although hundreds of its younger political activists, monks and dissidents were jailed. Now, it has been prevented from operating as a political party.

Amid this, the junta has claimed the elections due to be held this year will mark a crucial staging point in Burma's journey to full democracy. It is a claim that has been met with derision by most independent observers.

Just yesterday, The Elders, a group of global leaders called together by Nelson Mandela, used the occasion of Ms Suu Kyi's birthday to denounce the planned election. "National processes in Burma have been usurped by the military government – they do not serve the people. The elections due later this year will not be any different," said Desmond Tutu, chairman of the group.

Gordon Brown told The Independent last night: "The reason I wrote to both Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela as my final two letters as Prime Minister, was to send a message around the world that as long as [she] is not free then we cannot talk about a free world. And as long as [Mr Mandela's] dream of universal education and eradicating poverty is unrealised, then there is no justice. It is our duty, whatever position we are in, to fight for Aung San Suu Kyi to be free, and democracy to prevail."

Despite the junta's efforts to isolate her, experts say Ms Suu Kyi remains the sole person who could perhaps unite Burma. "She remains a powerful icon and, if she were free and there were free presidential elections tomorrow, there's no doubt in my mind that she would win," said author Bertil Lintner.

Aung Din, who also spent time in Burma's jails as a dissident and now heads the US Campaign for Burma, was even more forceful. "The junta are not able to remove the image of 'The Lady' from the hearts of the people. The more the people of Burma see and suffer abuses and injustices by the generals, the more they expect her to save their country".

Ms Suu Kyi – who rose to become leader of Burma's political opposition following massive democracy demonstrations in 1988 that were crushed with the loss of up to 6,000 lives – has been repeatedly jailed and detained by the authorities. Her first imprisonment followed an election in 1990 which the NLD won by a landslide but the military refused to acknowledge. Her current term of detention dates from 2003.

While she is slightly built and is perhaps starting to reflect her age, those who have met her during this time say she remains remarkably vibrant, alert and focused.

David Cameron has said that continuing to press for change in Burma will be a key part of his foreign policy agenda. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said yesterday: "Her continued detention, and that of more than 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma, contravenes international human rights law and casts a long shadow over planned elections. I urge the military regime to release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally."

Ms Suu Kyi's birthday will be celebrated with far more fanfare overseas than in Burma, where it is expected that just hardcore members of her NLD will gather. Paying their respects in person will be utterly impossible; since last year, the road that passes the opposition leader's crumbling house has been permanently barricaded.

Even at the age of 65, the woman inside carries with her a rare, special power that the generals still fear.
 London ~ Friday, 18 June 2010

A birthday party without the star guest

By Phoebe Kennedy in Rangoon

One thing is certain about Aung San Suu Kyi's 65th birthday tomorrow – it will rain. This is the monsoon season in Burma and each day brings a torrential downpour. After years of decline, her dilapidated lakeside villa in Rangoon – where she has spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest – is finally being renovated.

New terracotta roof tiles should keep the rain out and workmen have been busy this week repairing cracks in the once-grand portico and felling a coconut tree that was swaying dangerously close to the house.

The rain will clear the still, muggy air over Lake Inya, and Ms Suu Kyi may choose to walk across her lawn to the shore, to watch herons and cormorants circle their prey. She won't be alone: two policemen are constantly stationed by the water, after an American man swam to her house last year.

The icon of Burma's democracy movement will receive a card, cake and a bunch of flowers from senior party members, to be delivered by a family friend who is able to visit her most days with groceries and supplies.

"We have already organised that," said Nyan Win, her close adviser and spokesman for her now defunct National League for Democracy (NLD) party. "And if she wants anything else for her birthday, we will get it."

Ms Suu Kyi may decide to re-read letters from her younger son Kim and her sister-in-law Lucinda that were delivered to her a month ago. Her husband, the Oxford professor Michael Aris, died of cancer in 1999 and she did not risk returning to Britain to visit him on his deathbed, fearing that she would not be allowed back to Burma. The military authorities have denied visas to her two sons, Alexander and Kim, whom she has not seen for years.

Another certainty: Ms Suu Kyi won't be attending the party held in her honour in Rangoon's Ten Mile suburb. This evening, her female friends and supporters will gather at a sprawling house, and prepare huge vats of chicken curry and rice to feed the expected 500 guests.

As the sun rises, senior party members and loyal friends will arrive to give alms to the cinnamon-robed Buddhist monks filing past the front gates. "We will eat, talk and laugh. This is our way of marking her birthday," Nyan Win said.

Hundreds of party activists, friends and supporters have been invited to the celebrations at the home of May Hnin Kyi, who 20 years ago was elected as the member of parliament for Mandalay but was never able to take up her seat because the military junta dismissed the NLD victory.

As is the case at any NLD event, military intelligence officers will be stationed outside, noting down names and taking photographs. The party-goers risk arrest and harassment, but they don't care; many will be former political prisoners and their families, who feel they have little left to fear.

Most Burmese prefer to keep a lower profile, and are too preoccupied with the daily struggle of feeding their families to pause to consider the birthday. "Many people will not notice it," explained one local journalist.

Those with internet access – which at a cost of 60p an hour wipes out most people's daily wage – may try to mark the birthday online, risking reprisals from the authorities. With sites like Twitter and You Tube blocked, many young, urban Burmese are tentatively using Facebook to post articles from foreign newspapers and jokes about the political situation. "All I wanna say is that / They don't really care about us," read one post, invoking a Michael Jackson lyric.

Thida, a 36 year-old primary school teacher, described her silent way of marking the birthday of Burma's leading lady. "We can't celebrate. We daren't even talk about it. But I will go to the pagoda and light candles. So will many people. We will know it's for her."
 London ~ Friday 18 June 2010, page 21

Before duty called: pictures show Aung San Suu Kyi as a wife and mother

Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate's family life in Britain is depicted in photographs released for her 65th birthday

By Helen Pidd
Aung San Suu Kyi in her 1970 passport photograph from the Aris family collection (Anthony Aris)  View all the previously unseen Aung San Suu Kyi photographs HERE

She is known to the world as a human rights activist who has spent 14 of the last 20 years under house arrest as punishment for demanding democracy in her home country. But in these photographs Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is shown not as the fearless campaigner who has given up her liberty for the sake of her nation, but as a young woman in love and a doting mother.

Many of these pictures come from the private collection of her late husband, the Oxford academic Michael Aris, who died from prostate cancer in 1999. Almost all are today published for the first time, and now belong to the private Aris family trust, which has released them to the Guardian to mark and celebrate Aung San Suu Kyi's 65th birthday tomorrow.

As she has done for most of the past two decades, the Nobel laureate will celebrate not with her two sons and family, but in her crumbling villa on University Avenue in Rangoon, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers. Under the terms of her current imprisonment she will not be released until early 2011, though many of her supporters fear Burma's military rulers will find, yet again, a new spurious reason to keep her locked away once she has served her term.

The United Nations believes she should not be imprisoned at all, and this week the UN working group on arbitrary detention pronounced her continued detention a breach of international human rights law. The current excuse for her imprisonment is that she breached the conditions of her last house arrest, when an uninvited American man with mental health problems took it upon himself to swim across the lake to visit her home.

Perhaps the most striking picture in the collection shows Aung San Suu Kyi walking down a snowy track in the mountains of Bhutan. She could easily be a young girl of 13 in her oversized Tibetan gown and boots and men's gloves, but this picture was taken in January 1971, when she was 25 years old and already an established figure at the United Nations, where she worked in New York (and where her Burmese passport, right, was issued).

The Bhutan photo marks a milestone in her life: she has just accepted a proposal from Michael Aris, who was then working as a tutor to the Bhutanese royal family. She had flown from the US to the landlocked Himalayan country to visit her beloved, and on a trip to visit Taktsang, "the lair of the pregnant tigeress", a complex of temples which make up one of the oldest and most sacred shrines in Bhutan, Aris proposed.

They married on New Year's Day the following year. Pictures here show the couple in the London registry office where their marriage was made official before being blessed at a private Buddhist ceremony at a friend's home. The workaday surroundings belie the extraordinary union – the Oxford don marrying the beautiful young woman with a nation's hopes on her slim shoulders. In the background of one shot is a stern sign ordering guests not to celebrate with confetti or rice.

Other images come from the next stage in Aung San Suu Kyi's life, when she has become a mother. The family were living in Oxford by then, as Michael researched Tibetan and Bhutanese studies, and one shot records their first visit back to Burma after the birth of their first son, Alexander, in 1973. Alexander is in the arms of his grandmother, Daw Khin Kyi, widow of General Aung San, the Burmese revolutionary who was instrumental in bringing about Burma's independence from British colonial rule.

In 1977 Aung San Suu Kyi gave birth to her second son, Kim, and devoted much of her time and energy to motherhood. One photograph shows her outside the Oxford terrace where the family lived, and where Burmese exiles still visit today. Three other pictures show family holidays in the UK. One, taken in Grantown-on-Spey in the Cairngorms, could show any other late 70s family on a typically chilly British picnic. Everyone is bundled up in thick jumpers or coats, surrounded by Tupperware and eating sandwiches. Another Scottish scene takes place in more clement weather, as Aung San Suu Kyi bends down to speak to her two boys, playing on the croquet lawn at their paternal grandfather's house in Grantown-on-Spey.

In another photo the future leader of the Burmese Democracy Movement is tending a barbecue on the Norfolk Broads, where the family were enjoying a narrow boat holiday with friends. Within 10 years she was back in Burma, leaving them all behind in order to fight for what she believed in. It was her destiny, she said, and her family accepted it: before her marriage to Michael Aris, she told him: "I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them."
 London ~ Friday, 18 June 2010

Mary Robinson: We are walking a long road to peace and freedom

My fellow Elders and I place an empty chair for Aung San Suu Kyi at all of our meetings. We drape the chair in Burmese silk as a reminder not only of her continued suffering, but of that of more than 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma.

This year elections are due to take place in Burma – the first since the victory of her National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1990, which the junta rejected. Sadly, this is not a sign of hope as these elections are likely to lack any credibility.

In recent months, highly restrictive provisions have forced the NLD to disband. New laws forbid prisoners to be members of political parties – Aung San Suu Kyi can no longer be a member of the party she used to lead and the party cannot operate politically.

The opposition in Burma is divided between those who think participation in the elections is wrong, and those who are trying to make the best of a flawed situation.

My fellow Elders and I are deeply sympathetic to the difficult decisions the people face – and we pay tribute to the ordinary citizens who are bravely trying to improve their country's future.

It is important to remember that elections are just one part of progress towards a sustainable peace. Burma is a deeply fractured society; tensions between the government and ethnic groups have caused serious instability. Burma's neighbours have already experienced the effects of conflict in border areas and have the greatest interest in trying to prevent future division.

With such deep fractures in society, the country needs an avenue for dialogue. My fellow Elders and I urge the international community to assist the government, opposition, ethnic minorities and religious groups of Burma to begin a process of reconciliation.

Without this, the people will never achieve the peace and prosperity they deserve.

The writer is a member of The Elders. She was the first woman President of Ireland and is the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights