Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma's First Lady of Freedom

Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi is a profile in courage, but can she bring democracy to a troubled land? In a revealing interview, she talks of her hopes and fears

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Platon for TIME

The special branch had chased us across the city for hours, through the haunted, betel-nut-stained streets of old Rangoon, past street-side tailors hunched over ancient sewing machines and open-air bookstalls selling worm-eaten copies of Orwell and Kipling. Unable to shake the latest batch of state security men following us by foot, we jumped into a wheezing taxi of mid-20th century vintage. The young driver's eyes widened at the foreigners who hurled themselves in the back and ordered the car to move — fast. As we lurched into motion, he showed us where he stood by reaching into his shirt pocket and pulling out a laminated picture. It was, of course, of the Lady.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the 65-year-old Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was released from house arrest on Nov. 13, was not in the taxi with my two colleagues and me. But she is always carried in the hearts — and her image in the pockets, lockets and secret hiding places — of millions of Burmese. Among the most oppressed and impoverished people on the planet, they draw sustenance from this graceful woman who, armed only with the principle of nonviolent resistance, dares to stand up to the generals who have controlled Burma for nearly five decades. For 15 of the past 21 years, the military regime kept her locked up. But if the generals wished for Suu Kyi to fade into obscurity, they failed. Continued confinement turned her into the world's most famous political prisoner. Emerging from her most recent stint of seven years in detention, she is just as determined to fight for the civil liberties of Burma's 50 million people. "What we are calling for is revolutionary change through peaceful means," she told me when we recently met in Rangoon. "I'm not afraid to say it, and I'm not afraid to ask for all the help I can get."

The extent to which the junta has gone to try to foil the Lady, as Suu Kyi is fondly and universally known in Burma, is remarkable. For refusing to participate in a rigged election in November that the junta's proxy party won, Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was stripped of its political rights. The NLD overwhelmingly won at the polls in 1990, which presumably would have made Suu Kyi the nation's Prime Minister. But the junta ignored the people's verdict then, and a new constitution contains clauses specifically designed to keep her from ever serving as Burma's leader.

Since 1962, Burma's battle-hardened generals have faced down communist insurgents, ethnic armies, even the Western governments that impose economic sanctions on the regime. But they still act as if there is no greater enemy than this slight woman with flowers in her hair. Their fear of Suu Kyi is not entirely misplaced. "We think our leader is the ideal woman, not just for Burma but for the whole world," says Aye Aye Nyein, a teacher and member of the NLD's youth wing. "We Burmese live in a prison. She teaches us how to fight for our freedom." And the public's desire for freedom, of course, is why security agents were hunting us, snapping pictures with telephoto lenses fit for Hollywood paparazzi. Earlier that day, a total of at least a dozen special-branch officers trailed us, calling in our movements on their cell phones.

It took the taxi driver only a couple of minutes to figure out we had a tail. Pointing back at a car practically on our bumper, he grinned and gunned the engine. For more than half an hour, our high-speed chase wound through the streets of Burma's moldering former capital, past the carcasses of Victorian-era government buildings abandoned when the junta mysteriously moved the seat of power to a remote redoubt five years ago. We circumnavigated the massive golden spire of Shwedagon pagoda, Burma's holiest site, and careened by the hulk of Insein prison, where Suu Kyi was once jailed and where some of the country's 2,200 political prisoners still languish.

Dusk was falling. Screeching through an open-air market, the taxi finally shook our pursuers. Gratefully, we bid our driver goodbye. He reached into his pocket again, offering me Suu Kyi's picture as a gift. I was touched, but it was his talisman to cherish. I could leave Burma. He needed the Lady to keep him safe.

An Unending Struggle
Her carriage is regal, her English accent impeccable. The blossoms she customarily wears in her hair never seem to wilt, even as everything else droops in Burma's sullen heat. In the NLD office, with its intermittent electricity and maps of mildew spread across concrete walls, Suu Kyi floats like some otherworldly presence, calm and cool as others are flushed and frenetic. Ever since she was released in mid-November, Suu Kyi's days have been divided and subdivided into one-hour or 15-minute increments, during which she has met a dizzying array of people: foreign diplomats, AIDS patients, NGO directors, local economists, U.N. officials and the families of political prisoners. She even chatted by phone in December with former First Lady Laura Bush, who had championed the Burmese cause.

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