The Lady Lives
Twenty years after she was first put under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi is still the inspiration of Burma's would-be opposition.
On my first trip to Burma about a year ago, a young lawyer, in the cramped safety of an apartment that she shared with her aging parents, handed me a thumb-sized, silvery mug shot of a youthful Aung San Suu Kyi. "I could be arrested for carrying this," she said, with a touch with mischief. Then she buried the photo back into her cloth bag as fast as it had shot out.
Dissidence, visitors to Burma learn quickly, often begins with reverence for the embattled opposition leader whom Burmese refer to, in whispers, simply as "the Lady."
Aung San Suu Kyi burst onto the political stage almost by chance in the midst of 1988’s mass student-led pro-democracy protests as the charismatic, eloquent daughter of Burma’s martyred independence hero. In the years since, she has grown into a lone object of trust among Burmese, repeatedly credited as the sole figure capable of bridging deep divides — one fomented since a 1962 coup between the military and the civilian population, and the another between the Burmese majority and the country’s restive ethnic minorities.
Far from diminishing her star, the military junta’s two-decades-old tactic of repeatedly isolating her from the masses by confining her to house arrest has only served to amplify her status as a beacon of resistance.
Perhaps, paradoxically, that begins to explain the general inaction in the streets in response to a protracted trial that is part farce and part tragedy, a reminder both of the military junta’s penchant for Kafkaesque distortions of justice and its intransigence in the face of widespread international condemnation. To the outside world, small glimmers of hope appeared in the rare invitations meted out on a select few days to a handful of foreign diplomats and well-connected local journalists to sit in on the proceedings. The verdict was due in late July but instead has been adjourned to August 11, a decision that comes as little surprise to Burmese who long ago learned to turn their gaze away from the repeatedly stalled proceedings in disgust.
Burmese, in short, haven’t been fooled.
A small crowd of stalwarts from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have braved security forces and the likely risk of future arrest to hold a silent vigil outside the blackening walls of Insein prison, where the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has languished on trial for the past 2½ months. They are the most visible sign of activists in the ragged and diffuse semi-underground opposition who have otherwise struggled to foment demonstrations in the streets or spark small campaigns of symbolic protest. Some have distributed pamphlets or photos of Aung San Suu Kyi, and some have tried to trigger spontaneous marches with what they call "flash strikes," unfurling banners in crowded markets in the hopes that people will follow.
But a visitor would be hard-pressed to find these rare moments of defiance amid the silent, scarred streets of Burma’s cities.
"People won’t demonstrate because they are too afraid. But if you ask people who do they believe? Aung San Suu Kyi," a 27-year-old clandestine activist, code-named Sun Ray, told me. He had recently returned to Rangoon from his rural hide-out to launch a "yellow campaign" — in honor of a color he said was favored by the Lady — through his own semi-underground network. A few months earlier, he had splintered off from the youth branch of the NLD in part because of his belief that the party lacked force.
The NLD won a landslide victory in a 1990 election, but the ruling junta denied the NLD’s right to take power, consolidating its stranglehold on the country, imprisoning NLD politicians, harassing NLD members and their families, and banning all other opposition parties. Two decades later, faith in the NLD’s power to effect change has crumbled under the aging octogenarian caretakers who run the party from their headquarters in Rangoon. In the past two years, Burmese have watched them fail to take initiative or react fast during September 2007’s failed monk-led protests and in the aftermath of last year’s Cyclone Nargis, which killed an estimated 140,000 people while the junta dragged its feet.
But Aung San Suu Kyi’s staying power manifests in the inspiration she offers to a new generation of activists who are tired of the stagnant politics of a rump NLD that in the past 20 years has brought them no closer to democracy. In her absence from the scene, she has endured as the rallying point for diffuse networks who have begun to displace dreams of toppling the junta from the streets with a bid to prepare the population for a day when the junta falters, through scores of projects in the cities and rice paddies that tread a fine line between social work and politics.
That sentiment echoed throughout my recent travels across the country, where the trial has otherwise met with a mixture of anguish and deep cynicism. The Lady might get five years or another year, Burmese residents told me, often with a shrug; she might be punished with another period of house arrest or a prison sentence (where exactly she might be sent if convicted is the subject of intense speculation in the Rangoon rumor circuit). They’ve grown accustomed to expecting the worst.
"The whole country is like a jail," a 60-year-old Buddhist abbot told me over tea one recent afternoon, as he wiped off the dust from his spectacles in the dry heat of his Mandalay monastery. "The trial is just political. We don’t know about it." To Burmese, he said, it means very little.
Scarred by the memories of past street protests that ended in brutal crackdowns, and empowered last year in the aftermath of the cyclone, when countless Burmese took it upon themselves to dispatch aid to survivors, Burmese have come to accept a new pragmatism. Change, when it comes, will depend on a schism within the military leadership.
And the day the junta falters, "the Lady will lead. But we will lead too. We will organize at the township level," said a Rangoon doctor who recently founded an unofficial nonprofit organization that gathers a shifting crowd of 12 physicians for regular weekend trips to dispatch medicine and free clinical services in ramshackle villages on the outskirts of the city.
"For me, I still see her as my leader," added a 28-year-old woman who works as a teacher for a Rangoon nonprofit that runs courses on civic engagement and governance, "But I don’t believe there is only one leader. There will be many individuals. I’m not just waiting for her."
Asked for her thoughts on Aung San Suu Kyi, however, she shut her eyes tightly and said: "Her dedication, her commitment. She left her life for it. I tried it. One day, to be in her shoes — I stayed in my room. On her birthday. It was too difficult."
Amid the shifting caprices of a regime that lacks any legitimacy in the eyes of its people, Aung San Suu Kyi endures as a constant whose ideas on nonviolent protest and what she calls "loving kindness" carry weight in a culture that is deeply intertwined with Buddhist philosophy. Activists, from the most hard-bitten firebrands to aging intellectuals, long ago assimilated that lesson.
On a recent afternoon, Sun Ray and three activists from separate youth networks traded talk about change at a restaurant. They spoke of inspiration coming from Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution; of Otpor, a Serbian student movement that opposed Slobodan Milosevic; of Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. Conversation hushed whenever a waiter hovered.
Ironically, Burmese acknowledge that Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to be tested beyond the burnishing confines of her prison compound. "If your only influence depends on you being a prisoner," she once said, in a conversation with Alan Clements recorded in The Voice of Hope, "then you have not much to speak of."
I learned of her inspirational power best on a dusty street of mango vendors in the city of Mandalay, where a physician brought out file after file filled with the records of patients he had treated through a nonprofit that has been closely watched by agents since 2004. Inside were snapshots of patients who might once have been sent to a carnival freak show — a baby with an eye the size of a football, a girl with an overgrown arm, a man lacerated with skin diseases. All were advanced cases of easily treatable diseases that had been left to run their course too far, he said, a sign of the degeneration of healthcare and the terrible poverty of rural Burmese who rarely think to see a doctor until they near death. The files, which fill an entire room, were the best assurance the group had to survive, said the doctor.
After a long conversation about the pathological distress of the country that carefully sidestepped direct political discussion, he walked me to the gate of his villa, and then stopped suddenly. Across the road, a sunset-drenched monk stepped gingerly into a crumbling pagoda.
"Have you read anything by Aung San Suu Kyi?" the doctor asked, fixing me hard. "She says to use your freedom to help the Burmese become free," he said. His eyes filled with tears. "We do what we can."