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Suu Kyi outlasted her oppressors

The Myanmar activist, now 65, endured untold hardships during her long years of house arrest that ended Saturday with her release.

November 13, 2010|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

For years in her native Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has been known simply as "The Lady," a pro-democracy stalwart and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has languished for years in an arbitrary solitary confinement imposed by the nation's ruling military junta.

Although she was snatched from the public limelight, residents of the former Burma have always known this about the charismatic Buddhist activist, now 65: She would not be broken by the military generals she has long defied.

On Saturday, Suu Kyi proved them all right. She was finally released from the mildewing, two-story villa where she has spent much of her house arrest, spanning 15 of the last 21 years.

Whether in prison or not, supporters say, she has remained a quiet but defiant symbol of struggle against political repression for residents of the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

Always cutting a slight figure, the daughter of a national hero who had generations earlier campaigned for Burma's independence from Britain endured personal hardship to uphold her political principals, often going years without seeing her husband or sons.

But as popes, presidents and activists called unsuccessfully for her release, she never wavered. Once asked if she thought her story had the makings of a Greek tragedy, she responded: "Don't be silly. I don't go in for melodrama."

She later added: "I look upon myself as a politician. That's not a dirty word, you know. Some people think that there is something wrong with politicians. Of course, there is something wrong with some politicians."

Time and again, Suu Kyi showed her mettle since taking up the democracy struggle in 1988.

Spending much of her early life abroad, Suu Kyi had returned home that year just as street protests erupted against a quarter-century of military rule. The daughter of martyred independence leader Gen. Aung San, she quickly assumed a leadership role.

Then 44, she campaigned for the government to stage proper elections and became the first secretary general of the fledging National League for Democracy.

Explaining why she risked prison or worse by taking on the nation's military, she responded: "I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on."

Her unsuccessful efforts to stop a brutal military suppression that killed thousands of protestors, repeatedly facing own armed soldiers, gained her worldwide notoriety, including the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, being proclaimed by the Nobel committee as "an outstanding example of the power of the powerless."

But Suu Kyi's sons, Alexander and Kim, accepted the award in Oslo on behalf of their mother who, seen as a threat by the country's new military rulers, was detained in 1989 on national security charges.

She spent the next six years under house arrest at the family home at 54 University Avenue, enduring various periods in detention since then. Over the years, she has waged repeated hunger strikes to call attention to the military's brutal repression of protesting students.

But Suu Kyi endured. When her husband, British scholar Michael Aris, died in London in March 1999, they had only seen each other a handful of times since her first house arrest a decade earlier.

Press reports have painted her life in captivity as austere. Rising each day at 4 a.m., she meditated, read and listened to one of five radios that were her only link to the outside world. She had no telephone, no television, no Internet. Her mail, if delivered at all, was heavily censored.

Once an accomplished pianist, Myanmar's muggy equatorial heat long ago warped her instrument. Her only companionship: two long-serving, mother-and-daughter assistants.

Recent months have brought particular frustration. Suu Kyi was just a few weeks away from being released last year when she had an unexpected visit by an American, John Yettaw. She was found guilty of harboring anti-government elements and her sentence was extended.

At the time, one of her assistants told reporters: "It has been a hard life, she has sacrificed a lot. But she is used [to it] now. And she keeps working, waiting for the day she will be released."

john.glionna@latimes.com

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