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2008 v 47


 Not such a hero after all

Aung San Suu Kyi made the world take notice of Burma's struggle for democracy. But her failure to react to recent

Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma, is the world's most famous political prisoner. She has spent the best part of the past 20 years under house arrest, detained by the military dictatorship she opposes. Her current imprisonment began in May 2003, when her convoy was attacked and 70 of her supporters killed by a militia of government-sponsored thugs known darkly as the Masters of Force. She has been confined to her Rangoon home ever since.

Suu Kyi was born into the family that drove Burma's independence movement: her father was General Aung San, who was murdered by his political rivals in July 1947, shortly after negotiating his country's independence from Britain. Suu Kyi was pushed into politics in 1988 after thousands of students protesters were gunned down on the streets of Rangoon - when she delivered her inaugural speech at Rangoon's Shwe Dagon Pagoda on August 26 that year, a crowd of 500,000 came to hear her. A nation held in a headlock by a junta since 1962 fell behind her gutsy message of hope, and she led the NLD to a landslide election victory in May 1990, winning 392 out of 485 seats.

Suu Kyi has always advocated non-violent resistance, but is internationally renowned for her recalcitrance rather than her compliance. When Burma's military junta annulled the 1990 vote, Suu Kyi reached out to the west, where her allure was underpinned by her beauty and a post-colonial fairytale upbringing - a childhood spent riding with Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi; university years at St Hugh's, Oxford; a marriage on New Year's Day 1972 to a brilliant young academic to whom she had been introduced by Lord Gore-Booth. Amnesty International made her a prisoner of conscience, while Vanity Fair dubbed her Burma's Saint Joan. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel peace prize and India's prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru award for international understanding was given the following year. There seemed no limits to her popularity abroad - Gordon Brown, in his book Courage: Eight Portraits, called her "a hero for our times", profiling Suu Kyi alongside Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

Footage of her fiery speeches, made from behind the famous blue gates of her family home on University Avenue, were broadcast across the globe. Portraits of her were seen all over the world, too - most famously one shot by photographer Nic Dunlop, which has Suu Kyi looking defiant, her arms folded, her head turned reluctantly towards the lens (the NLD leader having just snapped at one of Dunlop's friends who had dared argue the toss with her about Burmese history).

Compilations of Suu Kyi's writings became bestsellers. Her democracy campaign drew hundreds of thousands of supporters at home and the attention of millions abroad, transforming the issue into the most high-profile postwar protest, barring the anti-apartheid movement.

But despite her international image as a great leader, Suu Kyi has become mute since her arrest in 2003. Twenty years on from her great speech in Rangoon there is nothing but static emanating from her Rangoon home. On the implosion of Burma's economy that has transformed it into one of the 49 least developed countries in the world, she has not much to say. Uprisings brutally suppressed - like those led by monks in September 2007? No comment. Tropical cyclone Nargis that last May swept away 170,000? Barely a word from Suu Kyi. A jerry-rigged referendum in May on a new constitution that would keep the military in power in perpetuam? No counter or strategy. Only a statement from the NLD that the vote had been "non-inclusive, non-transparent and undemocratic" and therefore a sham - which was self-evident to those who had survived May's cyclone Nargis only to be frog-marched to the polls at the point of a gun.

While western activists, such as the Burma Campaign UK, have never been more vocal - recently being backed by stars including Ricky Gervais - their focal point, Suu Kyi, has chosen to stay quiet behind the locked gates of her home, even though in previous years her house arrest has not prevented her from venting her anger in written and even filmed statements. She has been unable or unwilling to meet with the ruling Burmese junta or anyone else - refusing even to see UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari in August, during his fruitless six-day visit, the 40th such mission to date. Only the occasional photograph has emerged in recent years, revealing a woman who has, unsurprisingly, given the toll on her of imprisonment and isolation, dramatically aged.

Suu Kyi's uncharacteristic silence has worried Burma's pro-democracy activists, lighting up bulletin boards and chat rooms inside the country and wherever the Burmese diaspora has resettled.

"If Suu Kyi has a plan to end 20 years of political deadlock, only she knows it," an elder who first pushed her into politics told the Guardian. According to streams of increasingly agitated posts on the country's many bulletin boards, some supporters are even unsure if their leader remains actively engaged in the struggle at all. Suu Kyi's fight appears to have sublimated into a meditative battle, some say, underscored by her deeply felt spiritual views. "The generals heap pressure on her. She soaks it up," one Burmese activist remarked. Nowadays in Burma it is, the activists say, metta v the military, with Suu Kyi wielding only the Buddhist notion of loving kindness against the battle-hardened men in khaki.

So esoteric has the combat become that a noticeboard Suu Kyi has erected outside her house is - by her own choosing - now the only gauge of her inner-most ideas. This summer she posted a message on it which was so perplexing that it sparked an acrimonious debate among supporters and commentators.

Just inside the blue gates behind which Suu Kyi has been detained for 13 of the past 19 years, the message declares in bold red lettering: "All martyrs must finish their mission." Suu Kyi is renowned for her verbal precision. In the flesh she can be tart, a pedant even. So what did she mean? The question has been asked by supporters and opponents. The sign was put up to coincide with the country's Martyrs Day, a national holiday that commemorates the death of General Aung San.

In the vacuum that has replaced Suu Kyi's spoken words, the bizarre martyrdom message has been interpreted by some as a justification of her personal stance, and a vow that she will continue her struggle regardless of her own suffering - she lost her husband, Michael Aris, to cancer in 1999 and was not given the chance to say a final goodbye, and she is still separated from her two sons Kim and Alexander. However, for others, her reference to the need to finish the mission is seen as an astounding concession from a woman who has until now steadfastly refused to perceive herself as a martyr. Suu Kyi has, in the past, always described herself as an activist at the helm of an effective political movement.

In the land of bad news, speculation has mounted. A frank debate aired in campaign newspapers, online magazines and in political circles has thrown up some uncomfortable and incontrovertible facts about the state of the struggle for democracy and the effectiveness of Suu Kyi herself. Despite dedicating 20 years to ridding her country of its lumpen military, the generals' power has only increased, their role in any future elected government enshrined by the new constitution, which will lead to general elections in 2010 in which the only parties with the ability to canvas are those controlled by the same generals. On the other side, and having won the election in 1990, Suu Kyi has boycotted the constitution drafting process and the new elections, while advancing no alternative workable policies. Meanwhile, her NLD machine crashes around her - 1,000 of her supporters have been jailed this year alone, and no new leaders are emerging to fill their places in a party that is also short on policy.

The noticeboard that sprung up outside her home has been read by many as a downsizing of Suu Kyi's aspirations, and an acknowledgement that she now considers herself more a votive candle for democracy - a flame memorialising lost opportunities, and giving the Burmese people strength to survive whatever the military junta throws at them - rather than a political leader fighting to overthrow the regime once and for all. This apparent shift has provoked extraordinary candour both within Burma and among the millions of exiled Burmese who this summer commemorated the 20th anniversary of the student uprisings whose bloody suppression launched Suu Kyi and the NLD.

Suu Kyi is hallowed ground. And yet even some of her diehard supporters are now asking if the NLD and its leader have been guilty of political naivety and moral high-handedness, leaving the party and the democracy movement moribund. "What would happen if Suu Kyi died?" a magazine run by exiled Burmese dared to ask in August. "Her absence would probably be a death blow to the already weakened democracy struggle, because she has no obvious successor."

This is only one of the failings that some supporters now accuse her of. In late September, Aye Thar Aung, an ethnic Arakanese leader from western Burma and senior NLD coalition partner, broke cover. He had come to believe that the NLD had achieved no "tangible improvements in democratic reform" in 20 years. To go forward, even a centimetre, the party had to learn from the mistakes of its past, he argued. Now, for the first time, Suu Kyi's supporters are reviewing her leadership - and finding it wanting.

When Suu Kyi was reluctantly pushed forward as a figurehead for the newly formed NLD, she took her cue from the Dalai Lama, immediately pledging to pursue a "democratic dialogue" with the regime as opposed to engaging in armed struggle. But was she up to it? Most of the generals had spent their youth as anti-colonialists fighting the British and afterwards warring in grinding insurgencies - what hope did Suu Kyi have, an inexperienced politician who had been educated in India and Britain and even spoke Burmese with a British accent?

After her resounding 1990 electoral victory, the generals regrouped. The military placed her under house arrest and tore her party to pieces, while unfurling a sophisticated, long-range political programme whose breadth is only being appreciated today. They launched a National Convention to draw up a new constitution for Burma, to legalise the illegitimate military's role in any future government. They also established the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a mass civilian organisation that inveigled its way into all levels of society, to be wielded as a political cheerleader in future elections. "Their goal was to get around the will of the people," a Burmese economist in Rangoon told us. "To get elected despite the people."

To buy time, Senior General Than Shwe, the head of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, occasionally reached out to Suu Kyi, staging meetings at a government guesthouse. Photographs show her curtseying, while the general's face registers no discernible emotion at all. They had something in common. Both were authoritarian and proud.

Nyo Ohn Myint, who today is foreign affairs spokesman for the exiled wing of the NLD, recently described to Irrawaddy, an online magazine run by exiled Burmese, how the party was so pleased with itself for winning in 1990 that it became "ambitious beyond reality". Suu Kyi, according to party members, began taking decisions unilaterally that were aimed at confronting and isolating the military, even though as an organisation that was decades old and far more coherent than the NLD it would need to be worked with. She announced that the NLD would not participate in the generals' National Convention - a self-serving vehicle for the junta, but also the only forum to debate with the armed forces.

She also demanded that Burma be transformed into a pariah state - that the country be brought to its knees by sanctions imposed by her allies in Europe and the US.

Suu Kyi's tactics did not work. In the west, sanctions felt good. But trade between Europe and Burma was less than 5% of the country's GDP, while US sanctions were ultimately hollow, constructed in order that Unocal, the US oil giant, could continue to operate in Burma, increasing its stake to $1.2bn. For every western company that bailed out, there was an Asian equivalent that came in. A report by the International Crisis Group also warned: "Sanctions confirmed the suspicions of strongly nationalistic leaders that the west aims to dominate and exploit [Burma] and strengthens their resolve to resist."

According to the Rangoon economist, "Suu Kyi pressed on, creating further disquiet in the NLD by calling for NGOs in Burma to quit [because they were] prolonging the life of a junta." It was a controversial position in a country now rife with malaria and HIV, where only 50p per person was spent on health. But according to a former NLD leader in Rangoon: "Those who spoke out, she drummed out."

Having boycotted the military's route march to democracy, what new policies did the NLD generate, some in the NLD inner circle began to ask? In 1998, Suu Kyi went against the advice of her party by unveiling her own Committee Representing the People's Parliament, which would cancel all laws passed by the junta. One of those who protested to Suu Kyi recalls: "It was a symbolic gesture that led to the jailing of 110 NLD MPS and the closing down of 43 NLD offices. The NLD imploded. We should have found a way to intervene in the debate. We allowed the military that was unpopular to become a government that could succeed, while the NLD, a party that was popular, got lost."

Aung Naing Oo, a leader in the 1988 student uprisings and for seven years the foreign affairs spokesman for the anti-junta All Burma Students Democratic Front, told Irrawaddy: "I think our politicians are naive and no more than activists. They don't know how to take power and they have no strategic policies." He went further: "Never in our history did we have such an excellent combination of influential political figures, such as [Suu Kyi]. But sadly, those leaders ... followed their own path, ignoring unity."

A former senior NLD MP in Rangoon told the Guardian: "The old guard just clung on, incapable of training new activists, deaf to ideas, too strung up on bureaucracy and centralisation. While Suu Kyi remained inspirational, she was ineffective as a leader and the party, under attack from the outside, was neutered from within."

In 2005, the now unassailable generals turned their backs on the people (and Suu Kyi) altogether, retreating to Naypyidaw, the new highly-fortified capital 320km north of Rangoon. It, too, was a symbolic act. The Rangoon-based economist said: "If the democracy movement was leaderless, the Burmese regime was now a government unique in that it was unburdened by having to care for its people."

It was while the Burmese people came together when cyclone Nargis struck, driving aid to victims and pulling fallen trees from the capital's roads in the absence of any governmental help, that Suu Kyi's noticeboard leapt into life. One of those prompted to talk out by the bizarre martyrdom message was Tun Myint Aung, a student leader from 1988. He concluded: "No one can deny that we are on the side of truth and the people. But what we also have to consider seriously is whether our sacrifices alone will actually bring victory." Being a martyr was simply not good enough.

It was a point underscored by Burma's longest-serving political prisoner, Win Tin, a 79-year-old former journalist and advisor to Suu Kyi, who was released by the junta on September 23 this year. Reappointed secretary to the NLD's central executive committee, he immediately entered the fray. The fight for democracy "hadn't ended yet", he announced. However, "the NLD alone can't work it out". Instead of waiting the junta out, and turning its back, the party and its leader would have to begin engaging with its enemies as well as its friends. With any one, in fact, with whom it could form a dialogue. But when it comes to leaders, some in the party are asking whether it is it time to move on from Aung San Suu Kyi.