Aung San Suu Kyi celebrated her 65th birthday confined in the house in which she has spent most of the past two decades
A confidante of the Burmese opposition leader has made a simple but passionate appeal to those in the West to use their freedom to help his country achieve the same.
In a hand-written letter smuggled out of Burma and passed to The Independent, U Win Tin writes: “I want to repeat and echo her own words – ‘please use your liberty to promote ours’. I want to add more to it. Please bring more and more liberty to us, to our country, Burma. We are starving for it and we are waiting for someone or some institutions or some countries to bring it to us.”
The plea from Ms Suu Kyi’s friend and senior political ally, who himself spent almost 20 years in solitary confinement, comes at a desperately difficult time for the opponents of Burma’s military junta.
Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been forced to shut down after it decided it could not participate in an election due later this year when she and more than 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars. While a breakaway group of supporters has decided to contest the polls, most independent analysts believe the election will simply further cement the junta’s position.
While Ms Suu Kyi has been permitted occasional meetings with diplomats and her lawyers, she remains imprisoned within the lakeside Rangoon home once owned and occupied by her mother.
Analysts say that in the aftermath of the 2007 democracy protests – when tens of thousands of people took to the streets – the military authorities have made a concerted effort to marginalise the Nobel laureate, both physically and politically. Before the authorities had allowed the NLD and its largely frail and ageing membership to splutter on, although hundreds of its younger political activists, monks and dissidents were jailed. Now, it has been prevented from operating as a political party.
Amid this, the junta has claimed the elections due to be held this year will mark a crucial staging point in Burma’s journey to full democracy. It is a claim that has been met with derision by most independent observers.
The Elders, a group of global leaders called together by Nelson Mandela, used the occasion of Ms Suu Kyi’s birthday to denounce the planned election. “National processes in Burma have been usurped by the military government – they do not serve the people. The elections due later this year will not be any different,” said Desmond Tutu, chairman of the group.
Gordon Brown told The Independent: “The reason I wrote to both Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela as my final two letters as Prime Minister, was to send a message around the world that as long as [she] is not free then we cannot talk about a free world. And as long as [Mr Mandela's] dream of universal education and eradicating poverty is unrealised, then there is no justice. It is our duty, whatever position we are in, to fight for Aung San Suu Kyi to be free, and democracy to prevail.”
Despite the junta’s efforts to isolate her, experts say Ms Suu Kyi remains the sole person who could perhaps unite Burma. “She remains a powerful icon and, if she were free and there were free presidential elections tomorrow, there’s no doubt in my mind that she would win,” said author Bertil Lintner.
Aung Din, who also spent time in Burma’s jails as a dissident and now heads the US Campaign for Burma, was even more forceful. “The junta are not able to remove the image of ‘The Lady’ from the hearts of the people. The more the people of Burma see and suffer abuses and injustices by the generals, the more they expect her to save their country”.
Ms Suu Kyi – who rose to become leader of Burma’s political opposition following massive democracy demonstrations in 1988 that were crushed with the loss of up to 6,000 lives – has been repeatedly jailed and detained by the authorities. Her first imprisonment followed an election in 1990 which the NLD won by a landslide but the military refused to acknowledge. Her current term of detention dates from 2003.
While she is slightly built and is perhaps starting to reflect her age, those who have met her during this time say she remains remarkably vibrant, alert and focused.
David Cameron has said that continuing to press for change in Burma will be a key part of his foreign policy agenda. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said yesterday: “Her continued detention, and that of more than 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma, contravenes international human rights law and casts a long shadow over planned elections. I urge the military regime to release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally.”
Ms Suu Kyi’s birthday will be celebrated with far more fanfare overseas than in Burma, where it is expected that just hardcore members of her NLD will gather. Paying their respects in person will be utterly impossible; since last year, the road that passes the opposition leader’s crumbling house has been permanently barricaded.
Even at the age of 65, the woman inside carries with her a rare, special power that the generals still fear.