Aung San Suu Kyi, alone but unbowed

She sat throughout with a straight back, calmly and intently following the interminable legal arguments. She spoke politely and gravely to the prosecutors and judges. The British Ambassador described her as “composed, upright, crackling with energy”; even the prison police rose to their feet in respect as she entered the courtroom. The Chargé d’Affaires of the Philippines said: “She exuded a type of aura which can be described as moving, quite awe-inspiring.”

If it has brought no other benefit, the trial which came to an end today has given foreign observers rare glimpses of the Burmese democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. But it has done little to explain the personal mystery surrounding her: how has a 64-year old woman – physically slight, and even frail – endured what for most people would be a life of unbearable loneliness, isolation and deprivation?

Since 1990, Ms Suu Kyi has spent close to 14 years under detention in the decaying lakeside villa in central Rangoon where the eccentric American, John Yettaw, paid his fateful visit to her. She receives a visit from her doctor once a month; a handful of times, she has been visited by Ibrahim Gambari, Ban Ki Moon’s envoy to Burma. But when the UN Secretary-General himself came to Rangoon last month, the junta denied him permission to see Ms Suu Kyi.

Her British husband, the Oxford scholar Michael Aris, died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 53. She was unable to see him as he was dying – the junta refused to give him an entry visa, and she feared that, if she left Burma, she would not be allowed back in. She has not seen either of her two sons, now men in their thirties, for a decade.

Other prisoners of conscience, such as Nelson Mandela, have endured long periods of detention, but Ms Suu Kyi’s is peculiarly complete. Despite living in the centre of Rangoon, with the noises of the city audible outside, she is denied the company of fellow inmates, or even warders. Under house arrest, her only constant companions have been her two friends, the mother and daughter, Khin Khin Win and Win Ma Ma, who were also sentenced to 18 months’ house arrest yesterday.

She is allowed no radio, let alone a telephone or television. She is said to play the piano sometimes, on an instrument whose harmonics have been warped by the tropical heat. The garden, of the once elegant villa in which she lives, is returning to jungle and her supporters worry about the poisonous snakes – reptilian, rather than human – which may be lurking in it.

Her conviction was no surprise, and the preparations she made in advance reveal the way that she spends her time in detention – reading, studying and meditating. In the days before the verdict, her lawyers and supporters assembled a library of lengthy books, including the novels of John le Carré, a biography of Winston Churchill, English and French fiction, dictionaries and Buddhist religious texts.

But none of these would have seen her through the past two decades without her indomitable character. It is evident that, at the deepest level, she long ago made the decision that any personal inconvenience was secondary to the democratic future of Burma; and, having made that resolve, that everything else has followed – including the incidental suffering of her family as well as herself.

In maintaining her incarceration, the junta has completed her transformation from a politician into something much more powerful: a symbol of defiance and resistance, whose power lies not in what she says but what she is. Like Mandela, or like Xanana Gusmão, the former guerrilla leader who is now Prime Minister of East Timor, she does not have to do anything; she only has to be. Having martyred her liberty, family and friends, the junta has endowed her with a fearsome power and authority, which they will struggle to wrest back.

See also:
* Aung San Suu Kyi found guilty of breaking house arrest
* Aung San Suu Kyi left to pay the price for John Yettaw’s indiscretion
* Women’s groups urge Security Council to act on Burma
* Aung San Suu Kyi honoured with 2009 Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience award


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