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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Sacrificing Herself for Her Cause

Myanmar's freedom fighter lives in forced isolation, refusing to yield. Her nation, ruled by a junta, suffers nearly the same fate.

June 18, 2005|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

YANGON, Myanmar — She is known simply as The Lady. She lives in isolation in her old family home on a quiet lake in the northern part of the city. Armed guards make sure she doesn't leave. Her only known visitor is the doctor who checks on her monthly. She is said to spend her time meditating and reading.

The world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent nearly 10 of the last 16 years under house arrest or behind bars. There is no sign that Myanmar's brutal military regime plans to free her any time soon.

Sunday, the devout Buddhist, who received the prize in 1991 for her nonviolent struggle for democracy in Myanmar, will turn 60. Supporters around the globe will hold protests and concerts in more than a dozen cities, but no public celebration is planned here for fear of government retribution.

Myanmar, formerly called Burma, has been under military rule since a coup d'etat in 1962. In 1988, amid violent protests, the army massacred thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in the capital Rangoon, now called Yangon, and other cities, leading to another coup.

The new military leaders held national assembly elections in 1990 in which the National League for Democracy, which Suu Kyi helped found, won 82% of the seats. But the junta refused to hand over power. A committee of generals has run the country ever since.

The United States and other nations imposed economic and political sanctions aimed at securing Suu Kyi's freedom. But they have helped cripple the economy, and the dictatorship headed by Sr. Gen. Than Shwe remains firmly in command. Once one of the wealthiest nations in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is now one of the poorest.

The country is mostly isolated from the outside world. There are none of the McDonald's, Starbucks or KFC outlets here that have become ubiquitous in Southeast Asian cities. Instead, workers crowd into dilapidated buses carrying shiny, metal cylinder lunch boxes with separate trays for their rice, curry and vegetables. Women commonly walk down the streets of central Yangon carrying goods on their heads.

Secret police and a network of informers watch over the populace. Listening to overseas radio broadcasts or watching foreign shows on satellite television can result in seven years in prison. Foreign journalists are rarely allowed to visit.

Dissidents are arrested in the middle of the night and vanish into the prison system. There are more than 1,300 political detainees, rights groups say, including other leaders of Suu Kyi's party. Members of the public interviewed for this article asked not to be identified out of fear for their safety.

Around the world, Suu Kyi (pronounced Sue Chee) is celebrated for her advocacy of nonviolence to achieve democracy. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Thursday that instead of being under house arrest, she should be "out amongst the people and her supporters, pushing for stability and ... democratization of her society."

Rock musicians, including Paul McCartney, U2 and Pearl Jam, have dedicated songs to her. In a concert Sunday in Ireland, REM plans to perform a song for her that will be beamed into Myanmar by satellite even though it will be illegal to watch it. On Friday, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) tried to deliver 6,000 birthday cards for Suu Kyi at the Myanmar Embassy in Washington. No one accepted them.

Those who know Suu Kyi describe her as charming, brilliant and idealistic. Slender and graceful, she dresses in traditional Burmese attire and often wears a flower in her hair. The daughter of beloved independence leader Aung San, she is widely admired for her principled stand and self-sacrifice.

Suu Kyi believes the military should honor the results of the 1990 election and transfer power to the National League for Democracy, which she heads as general secretary. She has repeatedly demanded the release of political prisoners, including leaders of her party.

Although she projects a sense of calm, she can be exacting and formidable. "This is a very tough lady," said a Western diplomat who has met with her numerous times. "She is very focused. She is willing to put up with a lot to defend the principles that she sees as important. Compromise is not necessarily a term she is comfortable with."

Some diplomats in Yangon suggest she might have done more when she was free to bring about dialogue with the regime and work out a power-sharing agreement, as Nelson Mandela did in South Africa.

"The moral high ground is the place where she feels most comfortable," another diplomat said. "She has an idealistic view of the world. I don't think she has been prepared to make some slightly dirty compromises to move the situation forward."

Yet it's unclear whether anyone inside the country could persuade the regime to make compromises.

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