On 19 June the Nobel Prize winner and writer Aung San Suu Kyi celebrated her sixty-first birthday in detention. Daughter of Burma’s independence hero, General Aung San, she never knew her father, who was killed when she was two. She spent many of her early years abroad, taking a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford in 1967. From 1969 she worked for two years for the United Nations in New York, before marrying Michael Aris, a British specialist on Tibet, in 1972. They lived together in Oxford for many years, raising two sons. Aris died of cancer in March 1999.
Suu Kyi became leader of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in September 1988, but has been prohibited from standing for election in her country. She is Burma’s strongest advocate for democracy and the author of many books, including Freedom from Fear (1991), Letters from Burma (1997) and The Voice of Hope (1997). Suu Kyi has spent a large part of the last seventeen years in detention in Rangoon, much of it in solitary confinement. She was held under de facto house arrest for six years, from July 1989 to July 1995, and again from September 2000 until May 2002, when she was released following talks brokered by the United Nations between the ruling and opposition parties.
The leader’s current period of detention began on 30 May 2003, when a convoy in which she was travelling was attacked by the government-controlled militia, the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA). Thugs reportedly beat around a hundred NLD supporters to death in what was believed to be a failed assassination attempt against Suu Kyi, who herself sustained some injuries. The military junta claims that she was then taken into ‘protective custody’ for her own security.
The latest term of house arrest expired last May, but despite strong international pressure this was extended for another year on 27 May. Suu Kyi leads an isolated existence. She is denied visitors, access to newspapers, telephones, and her post is intercepted.
Burma was renamed Myanmar by the totalitarian regime, now known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), who seized power in 1988, during the brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations. Suu Kyi’s party gained a landslide victory in 1990, winning 82 per cent of the popular vote, but the military junta refused to allow them to come to power and ever since has ruled illegally.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the situation in Burma remains bleak, with government repression, paranoia and mismanagement causing misery and suffering inside Burma as well as posing a significant threat to the stability and well-being of her neighbours. The SPDC persecute democracy and human rights activists, making it impossible for genuine opposition parties to function. Freedom of expression, assembly, and association are non-existent. The junta continues to detain and arrest people who express their political opinions and HRW estimates that there are more than 1,100 people currently imprisoned for their political beliefs. Prison conditions are harsh and political prisoners are routinely denied adequate medical care, food, reading and writing materials and visiting rights.
HIV-Aids is rampant in Burma and there is an intense campaign against ethnic minorities, especially the Karen. Forced labour remains endemic, and concerns for child rights remain high.
Suu Kyi has said: ‘Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day … A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity.’
She has never been brought to court, charged or tried for any offence, and the sole basis for her imprisonment has been her peaceful political opposition to the authorities in her advocacy of democracy. In 1991 she won the Nobel Peace Prize ‘for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights’. Her voice, however, has been effectively silenced.
Chinks of light are beginning to appear. International pressure is building on the United Nations Security Council to intervene. In an unprecedented action, more than five hundred parliamentarians from thirty-four countries have signed a letter urging the Council to issue a binding resolution calling for national reconciliation in Burma. According to Burma Campaign UK, on 16 December 2005 the first debate on the country was held at the UN Security Council. A second briefing took place at the end of May. This followed a visit to Burma by UN Under Secretary General for Political Affairs, Ibrahim Gambari, who was allowed to meet the beleaguered opposition leader. Over the past year the government has released some political prisoners, including a few high-profile cases, and it is generally thought that international pressure played a part in this.
Readers may like to send appeals calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi to:
General Than Shwe
c/o Embassy of the Union of Myanmar
19A Charles Street
London W1J 5DX
Fax: 020 7629 4169
All quotes are from Aung San Suu Kyi’s essay, Freedom from Fear, first released for publication to commemorate the European Parliament’s 1990 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.