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Freedom's Struggle a Family Affair

Myanmar: Aung San was assassinated in 1947 when his daughter was only 2. Now, Aung San Suu Kyi leads the country's democracy movement.


YANGON, Myanmar — When modern Myanmar's founding father was cut down by assassins' bullets in 1947, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, was just 2 years old.

For decades after Gen. Aung San's death, a succession of weak, incompetent or despotic leaders ruled the country. His legacy seemed consigned to the history books and his dusty home-turned-museum.

The date of his death, July 19, was observed each year as Martyrs' Day, but the annual ritual seemed only a reminder of the doleful history of the country, formerly known as Burma.

No more, thanks to Suu Kyi -- the daughter who has become the undisputed leader of the country's democracy movement, a woman who meets with Myanmar's military masters on equal terms and stakes a claim to her father's heritage.

"I think you see his presence in the thought and expressions of Aung San Suu Kyi," says Josef Silverstein, a retired Myanmar specialist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "I think that the people still see her as carrying out his ideas about a peaceful and united Burma."

For this year's commemoration, Suu Kyi's opposition party urged a dialogue with the government to solve the nation's woes, saying the talks should be in line with "policies laid down by the martyrs" -- a reference to Aung San and his fellow independence fighters who had visions of creating a democracy.

Aung San, one of Asia's great anti-colonial leaders, was a blunt man of action. His Oxford-educated daughter is refined, worldly and patient. But they share charisma, fierce nationalism and a stubborn streak. Rebellion also runs in the family: Some 19th century ancestors actively resisted British colonization.

"Even at a young age, Aung San was very much anti-British, in a xenophobic sort of way, because his maternal grandfather had been beheaded by the British," says Sein Win, 80, who as a young reporter covered Aung San's brief career.

Born in 1915, Aung San became head of the country's largest nationalist association, and he enlisted Japan's aid to build up the Burma Independence Army to kick out the British.

When the Japanese took over the country during World War II, they installed a puppet nationalist government that included Aung San. But he led an underground struggle against Japan, and his nationalist army switched its allegiance in March 1945 to the Allied cause.

Aung San then negotiated an independence accord with Britain, and in April 1947 his party won 196 of 202 seats in an election for a constitutional assembly.

But six months before independence, gunmen burst into a meeting of the interim government, killing Aung San and six Cabinet ministers. A rival, former Prime Minister U Saw, was tried and hanged for arranging the assassination.

His life cut short at age 32, "he died as a freedom fighter, as a hero, but not as a real political leader," says Sein Win.

In 1962, one of Aung San's comrades in the independence struggle, Ne Win, staged a coup d'etat, installing a socialist police state that led the nation to economic ruin. His misrule sparked a popular uprising in 1988.

By chance, Suu Kyi had returned home that April to nurse her dying mother. She had lived abroad since she was 15, earning a degree at Oxford University, working at the United Nations and, in 1972, marrying an English academic, Michael Aris.

Although a political unknown, the Aung San component of her name was enough to bring out half a million people for her speech at the foot of Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda on Aug. 26, 1988.

"I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on," she declared.

Defying a brutal military crackdown, she helped found a party, the National League for Democracy. The day after an abortive protest on Martyrs' Day in 1989, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and spent the next six years in isolation at her home in Yangon.

Her party won the 1990 general election while she was under house arrest, taking 392 of 495 parliamentary seats, but the military wouldn't let it take power. In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

She was released from house arrest in 1995, but the military continued to harass her and restrict her movements. She spent an additional 19 months under house arrest until her release May 6.

But the generals haven't been able to stop her from pressing the democracy campaign. On Aug. 7, a videotape was released in Thailand in which she calls on the international community to pressure Myanmar's regime to free all its political prisoners.

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