The Lady Is Still in Jail

26 June 2003

The Lady Is Still in Jail

By Gwynne Dyer

“The military regime is very worried that they are facing a Cory Aquino-type of people-power movement, and basically, they’ve panicked,” explained a foreign diplomat in Rangoon shortly after a mob of government-sponsored thugs attacked Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade at Dipeyin, north-east of Mandalay, on 30 May. Around seventy of her supporters were killed, she was beaten up — and she and nineteen members of the National League for Democracy who were travelling with her were taken into temporary protective custody’. A month later, the Lady’ — as everyone in Burma calls her — is still in Insein prison in Rangoon.

She has been under some form of restraint, mostly house arrest, for almost all of the past thirteen years, as her children grew up without her and her husband died without even being allowed a farewell visit to Burma, but it has never been as bad as this. The military regime has realised that all its wealth and power are on the line right now, and the gloves have come off. But alone in her cell, still wearing the same blouse and skirt she was arrested in a month ago, she remains the most influential person in Burma. The generals have the guns and the money, but she has the legitimacy.

She has earned it by her patience and self-sacrifice — but also through the regime’s blunder thirteen years ago in allowing free elections in Burma. The generals calculated that they could bribe or bully a majority of Burma’s 45 million people into voting for their candidates, but when the counting was over in 1990 Suu Kyi and the NLD had won by a landslide: 82 percent of the votes. The army immediately cancelled’ the results and arrested all of the NLD’s leaders, but it never got over the effects of that mistake. And now it has made the same mistake again.

The confrontation between Suu Kyi and the generals began fifteen years ago, when the original tyrant, the half-crazed Ne Win, precipitated a crisis by resigning after more than two decades in power. His bizarre and isolationist version of socialism’ had reduced the once-prosperous country to penury, and his aim was to transfer formal power to a more respectable elected government while retaining real control. But Aung San Suu Kyi happened to be in Burma in 1988, home from her quiet life as an academic and mother in England to nurse her dying mother.

She had lived most of her life abroad, the inevitable consequence of being the only daughter of Burma’s great independence hero Aung San, who was assassinated when she was only two. But in 1988 South-East Asia was in political ferment: the example of the non-violent democratic revolution led by Cory Aquino in the Philippines in 1986 had already spread to Thailand and Bangladesh, toppling long-ruling military regimes, and now threatened the control of the Burmese military as well. Suu Kyi’s name made her invaluable to the pro-democracy campaigners, and she quickly became the symbol of the whole movement.

After three months the generals, realising that events were spinning out of control, took back power and authorised the massacre of thousands of students and other citizens in the streets of Rangoon. Then in 1990 the regime held a carefully stage-managed election’ to gain some international respectability — but the NLD won by a landslide, the regime refused to recognise its victory, and Burma has been in deadlock ever since. So last year a new generation of generals tried to square the circle again: they released Suu Kyi from house arrest in the hope that they could end all the foreign boycotts and rejoin the world without actually giving up power.

It never seemed like a good idea to General Than Shwe, the current head of the junta (who virtually froths at the mouth whenever the Lady’s name is mentioned), but he was talked into it by other senior generals led by Khin Nyunt, the influential head of intelligence. Thirteen months after she was released from house arrest, however, it turns out that Than Shwe was right: neither Suu Kyi nor the Burmese people were satisfied with tokenism, and the regime’s power and privileges really were at risk.

The NLD tiptoed through the first months after Aung San’s release, anxious not to derail the process of democratisation by too much open campaigning, but as it became clear that the generals were just looking for political cover it changed its style. In the last six months Aung San has been making open anti-regime speeches up and down the country, and every month the crowds have got bigger. The regime had to stop her or it was toast, so a month ago the thugs were unleashed to stage a massacre that would provide a pretext for the Lady’s arrest.

That has stopped the protests for the moment, but the regime is back where it was, loathed by foreigners and Burmese alike. How long can it hold out against the united disapproval of practically everyone? Quite a long time, if the past is any guide — and one should not expect a split between the top generals over this bungle. They know that they must hang together or else they will hang separately (probably literally, in some cases, for some of them have much Burmese blood on their hands).

Aung San Suu Kyi will need all of her patience.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“She has…again”; and “It never…at risk”)

NOTE: The renaming of Burma as Myanmar’ and of Rangoon as Yangon’ in 1989 was a cynical ploy by the military regime intended to win the support of Burmese nationalists, and is not recognised by the democratic opposition.