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Burma: Democracy fighter Aung San Suu Kyi faces new struggle for freedom

May 24, 2009

CBC News
May 22, 2009

Members of Peace for Nepal march for the
unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi in May
2009. Members of Peace for Nepal march for the
unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi in May
2009. (Binod Joshi/Associated Press)

On May 18 2009, nine days before she was to
complete a six-year house arrest term, Burmese
pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi went on trial
in a cloistered prison courtroom, accused of
violating the terms of her incarceration.

If convicted, she faces up to five more years in prison.

The charges were based on allegations by the
Burmese government that American John William
Yettaw, 53, swam across a lake and allegedly snuck into her home for two days.

According to Suu Kyi's restriction order, she is
prohibited from having contact with embassies and
political parties and she is barred from communicating with the outside world.

In response to the charges, Suu Kyi's lawyer
quoted her as saying: "I am not guilty because I have not broken any law."

Human rights groups and the international
community have derided the trial as a pretext to
keep Suu Kyi imprisoned before 2010's national elections.

The proceedings mark the beginning of what
appears to be the next chapter in what has become
a familiar story for the opposition leader known simply as "The Lady."

Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the last 19 years in
detention without trial. The Nobel Peace laureate
and devout Buddhist has used a legendary mix of
force and restraint to promote a non-violent
movement for democracy in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

But the increasingly elusive and isolated regime
in Burma has cracked down violently against the
pro-democracy movement and has strived repeatedly
to keep Suu Kyi — who it considers the greatest
threat to its grip on power — under lock and key.

The situation echoes the events of 1988, when
protests ended in bloodshed and a movement,
symbolized by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, began.

Freedom-fighting runs in the family

Suu Kyi is the daughter of one of Burma's most
cherished heroes. Gen. Aung San led his country's
fight for independence from Great Britain in the
1940s and was killed for his beliefs in 1947.

She was two years old when her father -- the de
facto prime minister of newly independent Burma
-- was assassinated. Though a Buddhist, she was
educated at Catholic schools and left for India
in her mid-teens with her mother, who became the
Burmese ambassador to India. Suu Kyi went to
England, where she studied at Oxford University
and met Michael Aris, a Tibetan scholar. They
married and had two sons, Alexander and Kim.

A watershed moment in Suu Kyi's life came in 1988
when she received a call from Burma that her
mother had suffered a stroke and did not have
long to live. Suu Kyi returned to Burma, leaving
her husband and two children in England, having
cautioned them years before that duty may one day
call her back to her homeland.

A bloody crackdown and house arrest

She arrived back in Burma to nurse her mother at
a time of a burgeoning pro-democracy movement,
fuelled by the energy and idealism among the
country's young people. There were demonstrations
against the repressive, one-party socialist government.

Suu Kyi was drawn into a mushrooming
pro-democracy movement in the country, helping to
found the National League for Democracy to
advance the people's cause. However, a junta
called the State Law and Order Restoration
Council (SLORC) seized power on Sept. 18, 1988,
and violently cracked down on the protests.
Thousands of pro-democracy advocates were killed
and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest the following year.

Next came a general election in 1990, which
political parties were allowed to contest. Suu
Kyi's party won a landslide victory, with 80 per
cent support. This was not to be tolerated by the
regime's leaders, who refused to recognize the election results.

Despite her detainment and the setback, Suu Kyi
continued to campaign for democracy.

The world takes notice

Her persistence paid off and the international
community took up the cause. Suu Kyi was awarded
the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and was released
from house arrest in 1995. Soon after gaining her
freedom, Suu Kyi gave one of her most dramatic
speeches at a global women's conference in
Beijing. She didn't appear at the conference, but
spoke to the international gathering by means of a video smuggled out of Burma.

"To the best of my knowledge, no war was ever
started by women," she said in the speech,
expressing herself with the calm conviction and
passion that reflects her Buddhist upbringing.
"But it is women and children who have always
suffered the most in situations of conflict."

Without specifically targeting her Burmese
opponents, her words dripped with gentle sarcasm.
It was a powerful speech, subtly crafted for the
targeted audience in her homeland.

A time of grief

In 1999, Michael Aris was dying of prostate
cancer in England where he lived with their two
sons. He had repeatedly requested permission to
visit his wife one last time before he died, but
junta's authorities denied him entry, arguing
that there are no proper facilities in the country to tend to a dying man.

They suggested instead that Suu Kyi visit him in
England. She refused, fearing if she ever left
the country she would never be allowed to return.

The day Aris died, on his 53rd birthday, Suu Kyi
honoured the occasion at her home in Rangoon,
with 1,000 friends and supporters, including
high-ranking diplomats from Europe and the United
States. Instead of wearing her usual bright
flowers and wreathes of jasmine, Suu Kyi chose
instead a traditional black lungi with a white
jacket. She cried only when one of the monks
reminded the audience that the essence of
Buddhism is to treat suffering with equanimity.

The steep price of struggle
Aung San Suu Kyi talks about the pro-democracy
movement during an interview in Rangoon in 1996.
Aung San Suu Kyi talks about the pro-democracy
movement during an interview in Rangoon in 1996.
(Richard Vogel/Associated Press)

The junta continued to keep a watchful eye on Suu
Kyi and, a year and a half later, there was
outrage around the world when Suu Kyi tried to
leave Rangoon, only to be thwarted by
authorities. It was similar to a roadside
standoff in 1998, when she suffered severe
dehydration and had to be returned to her home by ambulance.

In September 2000, she was, again, placed under
house arrest until the United Nations helped to
guarantee her release 19 months later. But her
freedom was short-lived. In 2003, she was put
into "protective custody" after her motorcade was attacked.

Being under house arrest for almost 12 of the
past 18 years has taken a toll. The long years of
isolation, the lack of contact with family,
friends and colleagues, the crushing of the
latest protests clearly weigh on her.

In photos taken after her two meetings with UN
special envoy Ibrahim Gambari in September 2007,
the 62-year-old Suu Kyi appeared exhausted and
discouraged, unable even to fake a smile for
being allowed the rare privilege of talking to an outside guest.

The world, though, has not forgotten her struggle.

In May 2008, the government of Stephen Harper
moved to make Suu Kyi an honourary Canadian
citizen. She joins only three other people to
receive that distinction: Tibetan spiritual
leader the Dalai Lama, former South African
president Nelson Mandela and Swedish diplomat
Raoul Wallenberg, who saved Jews from
extermination during the Second World War.

Suu Kyi has no phone or internet access. Her two
grown sons, Alexander and Kim, live abroad and
are denied entry into the country. It is not
known whether she has ever seen her young
grandchildren, Kim's children Jasmine and Jamie.

It's all part of the heavy price she has had to
pay to keep the fight for democracy alive in Burma.
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