Siobahan Dowd

Aung San Suu Kyi


HOW DO YOU remain unafraid in a society where fear lurks around every corner? An answer can be found in Aung San Suu Kyi’s classic book of dissent, Freedom from Fear (1991). Here she charts how democracy can be born in an individual, as well as a country, and explains how it offers citizens a chance to unite and cooperate, rather than be powerless and divided in the face of tyranny.

Today more than at any time in recent Burmese history, Aung San Suu Kyi is being forced to live up to her words. Although she has for the last fifteen years lived either under house arrest or with her movements strictlv controlled, she has never before been imprisoned. On 30 May that changed. She was taken into what the government euphemistically termed ‘protective custody’, and reportedly placed in a specially built compound in the country’s notorious Insein Jail. Meanwhile, the offices of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which she heads, were shut down. All negotiations towards loosening the junta’s political stranglehold unravelled. The outlook for democracy in Burma has seldom been grimmer.

Aung San Suu Kyi has led a remarkable life. She was just two when her father, Burma’s famous independence leader, Aung San, was assassinated in 1947. In 1960, she and her mother, the newly appointed Burmese ambassador to Delhi, moved to India. On graduating from high school, she read PPE at Oxford. There she met her husband, the academic Michael Aris. She travelled the Far East – notably Japan and Bhutan – before settling in Oxford, as a don’s wife and writing about her experiences abroad. She brought up two sons.

This calm chapter ended in 1988. On returning to Rangoon to look after her ailing mother, she witnessed the eruption of a vibrant democracy movement. Thousands took to the streets. As her father’s daughter, she decided that she could not remain indifferent. She made speeches, insisting on peaceful means of change and warning against violence. She suddenly found herself at the head of the pro-reform movement.

This peaceful opposition was brutally crushed. A new ditary government was installed, with the promise of elections the following year. When these were held, the NLD won a landslide victory. The results have yet to be honoured. Aung San Suu ~iiin,s tead of being accorded her rightful place as leader of Burma, was kept under house arrest for six years. She spent this time meditating, improving her French and Japanese, and writing. She was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1995, she was released from house arrest, but her movements were restricted. She wrote a regular column for a Japanese newspaper, describing everyday life in Burma and criticising the government’s political oppression. In 1997, she published two follow-ups to Freedom from Fear: Letters from Burma, a selection of her newspaper articles, and The Voice of Hope.

In 1999, her husband died of cancer. The Burmese Government apparently offered her permission to visit Britain, so that she could be with him at the last. She declined, convinced that once out of the country she would never be allowed back. She was again placed under house arrest between September 2000 and May 2002, and only released as part of a UN-brokered agreement establishing confidential talks between the NLD and the military regime. The UN appointed a Special Envoy, Razali Ismail, to help steer the process.

Now began a year of renewed hope. Suu Kyi toured the countryside, recruiting new NLD-members. Enormous crowdsAgathered to hear her speak. In spring this year, she embarked on a motorcade tour to the area around Mandalay. On 30 May, in the village of Kyiywa, the blow fell.

According to an eyewitness account published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, her motorcade was halted by monks who asked her to address some more people. Large numbers of assailants sprang out of several trucks that had been following. Suu Kyi’s supporters were attacked with ‘wooden and iron rods, bamboo and iron spears.. . . Many who were beaten up died on the spot and the ground was awash with blood.’ Meanwhile, Suu Kvi was taken to a car and driven away. Witnesses say that thbse killed numbered about seventy. The official version states that four died.

Aung San-Suu Kyi’s subsequent detention – along with many of the NLD’s key members – has provoked a storm of international protest. Japan has announced a new range of sanctions against Burma. It is hard to predct the military government’s next move. The Chairman of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (as the military styles itself), General Than Shwe, is said by one regional dplomat to have ‘a fit’ at the mere mention of Suu Kyi’s name. But other members of the dtary establishment, includng the First Secretary, Khin Nyunt, are believed to accept the need for engagement with the NLD, if Burma is not to lose completely its place in the international community. The UN Special Envoy, Razah Ismail, reports that he himself is optimistic, because of thls difference of opinion within the regime. He recently visited Aung San Suu Kyi and found her well and in good spirits, despite all that has happened. It seems that despite laclung physical freedom, she sd enjoys her own ‘freedom from fear’. He is pressing for her swift release.

Letters reiterating the UN envoy’s call, and asking that Aung San Suu Kyi be also freed from all other restrictive meaiures, can besent to:

Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, Secretary 1
State Peace and Development Council
C/o Director of Defence Services Intelligence (DDSI)
Ministry of Defence
Signal Pagoda Road, Dagon Post Office
Yangon, Union of Myanmar
Fax: + 95 1 229 50

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