Skip to comments.Still at the mercy of stubborn generals FOCUS / BURMA
Posted on 06/17/2005 4:20:41 PM PDT by LwinAungSoe
Burma's detained pro-democracy leader celebrates her 60th birthday with little hope of being freed soon
On Sunday, millions of people throughout the world will mark the birthday of Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The coordinated campaign around the world, in almost every major city in Asia, Australia, Europe and North America, is trying to highlight the plight of one of the world's best known freedom fighters, languishing under house arrest in her lakeside residence in Rangoon.
But Burma's military rulers are likely to remain totally unmoved by the millions of Burmese and international protesters demanding her immediate release. They can jump up and down and make as much noise as they like, General Than Shwe couldnt careless, according to a senior government official.
As a matter of principle, the ruling junta will not be pressured into being conciliatory.
Aung San Suu Kyi has spent more than 10 of the last 15 years in detention. She is currently spending her third term under house arrest. The regime locked her up again after a brutal attack on her and her entourage as they were travelling in the north of the country in May 2003.
She has been in detention ever since, and in over the last 12 months in virtual solitary confinement.
On June 19, the detained opposition leader will turn 60. Even her party, the National League for Democracy, which convincingly won the1990 elections but was never allowed to form a government, plans discreet parties throughout the country to commemorate their leader's birthday.
For the Burmese people, trampled for more than 40 years by a repressive military regime, she represents their aspirations, and above all their desire for freedom and democracy.
The irony is that Aung San Suu Kyi herself would probably disapprove of the world making a fuss over her birthday. She has continuously shunned personal attention. And even when her husband and sons accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, her acceptance speech smuggled out of the country at the time said the prize was not for her alone, but for all Burmese people in their struggle for democracy.
There has always been a self-effacing touch to Aung San Suu Kyi. Since her return to Rangoon to look after her ill mother in 1988, she has always put her personal concerns aside for the sake of the Burmese people.
``I draw inspiration from the courage and sacrifice of the ordinary Burmese people,'' she often said to me in interviews on the phone during the few years she was freed from house arrest for the first time in 10 July 1995, after six years under house arrest.
But Burma's military leader, senior General Than Shwe cannot even abide hearing her name. The mere mention of her name sends the old man into a silent rage, according to a senior military source close to the top general.
Asia's foreign ministers were warned by their Burmese counterpart at the Asean summit in Phnom Penh in 2002 to avoid mentioning her name in his presence. The former intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt frequently warned the UN envoy Razali Ismail to minimise the mention of Aung San Suu Kyi's name in front of the top general.
Indonesia's foreign minister Dr Hasan Wirajuda confided to UN officials that there was a marked change in Than Shwe's demeanour when he mentioned Aung San Suu Kyi. ``His eyes glazed over and his facial muscles tensed; clearly our discussion had come to an end,'' he reportedly said.
This remains one of the key obstacles to resolving Burma's political deadlock. Burma's top generals are not interested in a concrete dialogue with the pro-democracy leader. ``We've been trying to get them to the negotiating table for 14 years, but they have never been keen on the idea,'' she told me the last time we met in March 2003.
Aung San Suu Kyi, on the other hand, has repeatedly offered to discuss the country's political future with the generals. ``Everything is negotiable if they start meaningful talks,'' she told me weeks before she was detained for the third time more than two years ago following an attack on her and her entourage by pro-government thugs in what is now called Black Friday.
``We are in opposition to each other at the moment but we should work together for the sake of the country. We certainly bare no grudges against them. We are not out for vengeance. We want to reach the kind of settlement which will be beneficial to everybody, including the members of the military,'' Aung San Suu Kyi said to me in one of her last interviews before her fateful trip in 2003.
During Aung San Suu Kyi's second long period of house arrest, after she was detained trying to travel out of Rangoon in late 2000, the regime started tentative contact with the pro-democracy leader. The secret talks were largely brokered by the UN special envoy for Burma, Razali Ismail.
Although this contact was never really substantive, it raised hopes inside Burma and abroad that political reform may be the agenda.
A process of national reconciliation was started, ostensibly involving senior representatives of the military regime, pro-democracy leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the ethnic rebel groups, many of whom have been fighting for some form of autonomy for more than five decades.
At the time there were high hopes, although many leading Burmese dissidents abroad and diplomats in Rangoon remained highly sceptical, believing the Burmese generals had no intention of negotiating and were only concerned about hanging on to power at any cost.
In 2001, the Singaporean prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, told me privately that the generals were incorrigible and would never give up power voluntarily.
Most Asian leaders probably did not disagree with the eminent Singaporean politician at the time or even now _ but all of them preferred to coax Burma's top military leaders to change, rather than pressure them.
Even East Timor's foreign minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner has suggested that pressuring the generals in Rangoon was counter-productive.
``Threats and deadlines have had no effect on the junta, except hardening their position and forcing them to retreat into isolation,'' the former Asean general-secretary Rudolfo Severino told me at the World Economic Forum n Kuala Lumpur shortly before he retired.
But Aung San Suu Kyi has persisted trying to convince the regime that she at least was prepared to negotiate and that meant making concessions. ``What we've always said is that dialogue is not a competition,'' she told me as we chatted in Rangoon over two years ago.
``We don't want a dialogue in order to find out who is the better person, or which is the smarter organisation. We have always said that the only winner, if we settle down to negotiations, the only winner, will be the country,'' she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly made conciliatory gestures towards the regime. As the daughter of the independence hero and founder of modern Burma, General Aung San, she understands the military mentality and is prepared to work with them.
``We have genuine goodwill towards the Burmese military. I personally look upon it with a certain amount of affection because of my father and I want it to have an honourable position in the country,'' she told me as we sat together talking at the NLD headquarters, weeks before the regime showed its true colours.
During yet another honeymoon period, after the new prime minister General Khin Nyunt announced a seven-stage road map to democracy, and the regime started plans to reconvene the National Convention to draft a new constitution, there was a glimmer of hope that Burma's military leaders may at long last include Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in the process.
Early last year, at the suggestion of the Chinese, Aung San Suu Kyi wrote to Gen Than Shwe suggesting that they put the past behind and move forward in a new era of cooperation. It fell on deaf ears.
Burma's top general is convinced that by keeping Aung San Suu Kyi in detention he can marginalise her and reduce her influence in the country.
It is a vain hope as the protests and parties across the world will testify to.
Aung San Suu Kyi is not only a massive icon in Burma, but throughout the globe.
Shortly after Kofi Annan took over as the UN secretary-general, he had to find someone to lead the UN Commission on Human Rights. ``I have a great idea,'' he told a close mutual friend. ``We'll make Aung San Suu Kyi the head of the human rights commission.'' Whether he really meant it or not, we may never know.
But of course Aung San Suu Kyi, who at the time had just been released from house arrest for the first time, would never have taken the post as her overriding commitment is to the cause of democracy in Burma.
At present, Aung San Suu Kyi is being detained in intolerable conditions, though conditions which she is coping with admirably. She is in virtual solitary confinement. She has not really seen anyone other than her doctor for more than a year.
The Red Cross have been denied access to her for more than 18 months. The UN envoy Razali was the last international person to visit her in the first week of March last year.
Her fellow NLD leaders were allowed to meet her several times early last year in the lead up to the opening of National Convention on May 17.
But since then they have been forbidden to see her. The doctor now only sees her roughly once a month and is thoroughly searched as he enters and leaves the house.
Her two maids are not allowed to leave the family compound, and are photographed as they hand their shopping lists to the military guards at the front gate.
The six young NLD activists who guarded her house inside the compound were removed by the authorities last November.
It now seems certain that Aung San Suu Kyi will remain under house arrest until after a new constitution is drafted and put to a referendum.
So it is more than likely she will be under house arrest for the best part of another year. She may even have to celebrate her next birthday in detention.
But Aung San Suu Kyi is undeterred by the years of incarceration. When I met her on the day she was released last time, May 6, she confided that the isolation gave her plenty of time for reading, reflection and meditation.
As she sits alone in her Rangoon residence now, I am certain she continues to draw inspiration from her father and the sacrifices of the Burmese people.
``I always have been strengthened and inspired by my father. Even now, sometimes when I go over his old speeches, they are as relevant now as they were then _ he was indeed a man of vision,'' she confined to me as I left the NLD headquarters.
It is this humility, charisma, commitment and strength that makes Aung San Suu Kyi the inspirational icon she has become for the NLD and the Burmese battle for democracy.