For six years, from 1989 to 1995, Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Awng-Sahn-Soo-Chee) was kept in isolation under house arrest for speaking out against the government, which has used torture and forced labor and which refuses to hand over power, even though it lost a national election. In 1991, still under house arrest. Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Following her release in 1995, she continued to challenge the junta, every weekend addressing the thousands of followers who congregated in front of the gate to her house and across the street. It had become the only forum for free speech in the country. But since September the government has cracked down on these gatherings. It has amested more than 1000 people -- usually in the middle of the night And Aung San Suu Kyi is again restricted to her home.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been an inspiration, but the personal cost has been great Since her struggle began, she has been allowed to see her husband and children only infrequently. While under house arrest, she did not see her children for 2 and 1/2 years.
Aung San Suu Kyi comes from a politically prominent Burmese family, but until the age of 43 she had been leading a quiet life in England as a housewife and academic. How did she transform herself into the leading speaker for demccracy and a symbol of freedom? And what gave this woman, by all accounts a devoted mother, the strength to sacrifice the satisfactions of marriage and motherhood, as well as the courage to risk her life again and again?
I visited Aung San Suu Kyi before the latest crackdown at her home in Rangoon. the capital of Burma (While the military government has changed the country's offlcial name from Burma to Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi and other supporters of democracy continue to use the name Burma) After entenug the front gate, I was forced to sign in by the military intelligence offlcers who camp out on her property. Her home sits beside a lake, but the view is rnarrEd by the bales of barbed wire that the government has set up between her house and the water.
My first glimpse of Aung San Suu Kyi had come earlier, on a hot Saturday aftenoon, as she addressed the crowd near her home. I expected her to appear stern and serious in the manner of other revolutionaries, and I expected her speech to be angry and defiant. So I was surprised when she appeared above the gate, smiling and waving, dressed in a brightly colored longyi, or sarong, and wearing three different kinds of flowers in her hair. Later, at her home, she was wearing more fresh flowers.
"People give me flowers all the time," she explained, "and I wear as many of them as I can. My mother often quoted a Burmese saying: 'A man without knowledge is like a flower without a scent.' I prefer scented flowers." The speech itself that Saturday had been full of laughter and good spints. Aung San Suu Kyi answered questions submitted by the audience. Most were serious queries, but many were sly digs at the military dictatorship, such as, '~hy do the wives of government leaders wear diamond jewelry?"
For the Bumoese people, much of Aung San Suu Kyi's power comes from her being a living link to history. She is the daughter of Burma's greatest modern hero, Aung San, who founded the Burmese Army in 1941 and is considered the father of his nation. At the end of World War II, Aung San, like George Washington, made a successful transition from military leader to political leader. He negotiated with the British and arranged for national independence to be proclaimed by Jan. 4, 1948. But before that day amved, Aung San was assassinated by political rivals. He was 32. His dau,rhter was barely 2 years old. Besides his wife and daughter, Aung San left two sons: One died while still a child; the other is now an American citizen, an engineer living in San Diego. "Although I was too young to retain a direct memory of my father," Aung San Suu Kyi told me, "my mother taught me about his life and his principles, as did his old friends." (As an adult, she wrote a biography of Aung San.)
At 15, Aung San Suu Kyi moved to New Delhi when her mother, Khin Kyi, was appointed ambassador to India. Later, she studied at Oxford University in England. After graduating with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics, she worked for almost three years at the United Nations in New York City.
It was a time of political and social turrnoil in the U.S. "The young people were for love and not for war," she recalled. "There was a feeling of tremendous vigor. I had been moved by Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech and how he tried to better the lot of the black people without fostering feelings of hate. It's hate that is the problem, not violence. Violence is simply the symptom of hate."
In 1972, Aung San Suu Kyi married Michael Aris, a British scholar specializing in Tibetan studies. He is now a don at Oxford. Prior to their marriage, she wrote these words to him: '1 only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them." In the meantime' she lived a reasonably normal life. She gave birth to two sons, Alexander in 1973 and Kim in 1977. For several years, she devoted herself to raising her family and continuing her studies. Then her life changed dramatically.
In April 1988, she received word from Burma that her mother was gravely ill. She returned to Rangoon to care for her. This visit coincided with unusual political activity in Burma. ln March, riot police had shot to death 200 demonstrators, most of them students, who had protested govemment policies and repression. Despite the shootings, the demonstrations grew. Increasingly, protesters demanded free multiparty elections.
"Government leaders are amazing," Aung San Suu Kyi said. "So often it seems they are the last to know what the people want." Many demonstrations were staged in front of the U.S. embassy, because the U.S. was seen as a symbol of, democracy. Between Aug. 8 and 13 1988, the police killed nearly 3000 people.
Aung San Suu Kyi watched these developments with growing concem. Many of the pro-democracy demonstrators carried signs with pictures of her father. On Aug. 26, a general strike was called and several hundred thousand attended a rally in front of Rangoon's Shwedagon pagoda. Here, for the first time, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to the crowd. Recalling her father's assassination, she said, "People have been saying I know nothing of Burmese politics. The trouble is, I know too much." As the crowd warmed to her, she concluded. "I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that is going on. The national crisis could, in fact, be called the second struggle for independence."
Ovemight, Aung San Suu Kyi became the leading representative of the movement for freedom and democracy. In September' the military seized control of the government, declared martial law and killed 1000 demonstrators. Aung San Suu Kyi joined with other anti-government leaders to form the National League for Democracy (NLD). She traveled the country, giving more than 1000 speeches. During this period she was involved in a dramatic incident. On the evening of April 5, 1989, as they were resuming home, she and a group of pro democracy organizers were stopped and ordered offthe road by government soldiers. Aung San Suu Kyi waved the others away and kept walking toward the soldiers. "It seemed so niuch simpler," she later explained, "to provide them with a single target." A captain ordered his troops to raise their rifles and shoot She continued advancing. At the last second, a major ran forward and overruled the captain. Three and a half months later, exasperated by her growing popularity, the Burmese dictators placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. She was not allowed to see her children for more than 2'/, years. "I felt very guilty about not looking after them," she said. "The antidote to such feelings was knowing that others had it much worse. I knew that my children were safe with my husband in England, whereas a lot of my colleagues were in the terrible position of being in prison themselves and not knowing how safe their children were going to be." She described seeing her younger son for the first time in almost three years: "I would not have recognized him if I had seen him on the street."
Later, in England, her husband told me that he suppOns his wife fully but could not talk on the record for fear that the Burmese government will accuse him of being a foreigner interfering in their affairs. I also met in London with Burmese women who had been arrested by SLORC and kept apart from their families. They confirmed what Aung San Suu Kyi had told me. One woman I met, who had been jailed for three years, gave binh in prison and immediately had the baby taken away from her.
In 1990, SLORC agreed to hold an electionQan attempt to satisfy potential foreign investors. Only the military leaders were surprised by the results: Aung San Suu Kyi herself was not al- lowed to run for of fice, but her pany, the NLD, won 80 percent of the vote and seats. The pany of the military won only 10 seats out of 485 contested.
SLORC announced that the election didn't count. Since then, it has followed "the Chinese model": liberalize the economy while keeping a tight lid on political dissent. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of the population has become richer, while most Burmese, suffering from spiraling inflation, actually have seen their lives become harder.
But even if the economy were to improve, Aung San Suu Kyi stressed that there is more to life than material success. "This is something you Americans would be in a better position to talk about," she told me, "because there is certainly material prosperity in the United States. And yet material prosperity has not insured happiness and harmony or even contentment. I do believe in the spiritual nunure of human beings. To some it's a strange or outdated idea, but I do believe there is such a thing as a human spirit. There is a spiritual dimension to man which should be nurtured."
Aung San Suu Kyi is adamant about sticking to her policy of nonviolence. "There are those," she explained, "who believe the only way we can remove the authoritarian regime and replace it with a democratic one is through violent means. But then, in the future, those who do not approve of a democratic government would be encouraged to try violent means of toppling it, because we would have set a precedent that you bring about political change through violence. I would like to set strongly the precedent that you bring about political change through political settlement and not through violence."
The government, meanwhile, is trying to persuade foreign investors to bring their business to Burma. They also have declared 1996-97 "Visit Myanmar Year" for tourists. Aung San Suu Kyi's advice: "Tourists should wait until Burma is a freer and happier country." Foreign investors, she said, "will get better returns for their money if they invest in a country that is stable and which has a strong framework of just laws."
I asked what Americans can do. Although Aung San Suu Kyi stressed that it is up to the people of Burma to solve their own problems, it ~s possible for others to help. "Don't support businesses which are supporting injustice in Burma," she said. In the U.S., support for Aung San Suu Kyi has united liberals and conservatives. Groups promoting democracy in Burma have been formed on more than 100 American college campuses.
The day before I left Burma, I talked in Aung San Suu Kyi's garden with her cousin Aye Win, who served as her press secretary. (He has since been sentenced to 20 years in prison.) I was concerned that customs offcials might confiscate my photos and tapes of Aung San Suu Kyi. "You have nothing to worry about," he reassured me, "because you have the power of the U.S. government behind you. It is we Burmese who have to worry." He nodded in the direction of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was walking toward us. "All we have," he added, "is Aung San's daughter."
January 19, 1997