Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why generals fear a people's champion

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to supporters from the top of her gate at her Rangoon house in 1996. Photo: Reuters

By Seth Mydans

Already under house arrest, Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi now faces jail, writes Seth Mydans in Bangkok.

"WHY are you so afraid of us?" Aung San Suu Kyi called out, taunting Burma's military government as thousands of supporters listened in the rain, whistling and cheering from under a sea of black umbrellas.

Activists slam UN on Suu Kyi

Myanmar activists in Bangkok urge the United Nations to take immediate action following the junta's latest charges against detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

That was 13 years ago, during a temporary period of freedom from house arrest, and Ms Suu Kyi was putting into words the dynamic that has kept her under detention for most of the past two decades.

The seemingly all-powerful junta, which jails its opponents and crushes popular uprisings, is afraid of Ms Suu Kyi, 63, the pro-democracy opposition leader, and of the continuing support she commands among the people.

"Her achievement has been to concentrate the values that are associated with democracy and freedom into one person," said David Steinberg, an expert on Burma at Washington's Georgetown University.

Last Thursday, the generals who rule the country demonstrated their continuing fear of Ms Suu Kyi by charging her with violating the terms of her most recent, six-year house arrest, and locking her inside what it calls a prison "guesthouse".

She faces a trial hearing tomorrow on charges that could result in a prison term of up to five years, a harsher form of the isolation she has endured for 13 of the past 19 years.

"They are trying their best to put her out of the minds of the population," said her lawyer, U Kyi Win. "But the more they do that, the more they are highlighting her. That is the reverse effect that it is having."

The junta's motives, and the effect of its actions, are familiar, but the circumstances of the latest charges have a touch of the absurd.

They stem from the capture of an American adventurer, John Yettaw, 53, who twice swam across a lake to her house where he delivered her a Bible, although she is a Buddhist.

Ms Suu Kyi is on trial for violating the terms of her house arrest, though her lawyer describes the American as an intruder. She is being charged, along with her two housekeepers and her doctor, who treated her for low blood pressure and dehydration soon after Mr Yettaw swam away on May 5.

The housekeepers and the doctor have been among the only people she has been allowed to talk to over the past six years.

And yet, like a silent ghost, she shadows the country's military leaders, who have sought without success to exorcise her with propaganda and repression.

In the grip she seems to hold over her jailers, Ms Suu Kyi demonstrates what Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president, called "the power of the powerless".

The generals pitted their popularity against hers in an election in 1991 and lost overwhelmingly, but they refused to release their grip on power. Then they experimented with lifting her house arrest in 2002, but locked her up again a year later after ecstatic crowds gathered wherever she went.

The generals are on the verge of achieving a goal that in their eyes would justify their harsh rule and crown them as saviours of the country: an election scheduled for next year that would legitimise the continued military dominance. And they appear to be afraid this woman could ruin it all if she were allowed a voice that could rally opposition.

Thirteen years ago, when Ms Suu Kyi was addressing supporters in the rain, a Western diplomat predicted her confrontation with the generals could not last much longer.

"Some of her leaders are old," he said. "Some are in prison. Some have died. She knows she will lose a waiting game."

But the waiting game continues, and she has not yet lost.


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