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

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But even as the world watches Burma with renewed interest in the wake of Suu Kyi's release, she has not yet met the people with whom she most wants to talk. The regime has ignored her repeated offers for national reconciliation dialogue. Since releasing her, the junta has dealt with Suu Kyi by acting as if she didn't exist, expunging mentions of her from the local press and hoping that, despite her busy calendar and the huge crowds that gather wherever she goes, she will somehow dwindle into irrelevance. "I wish I could have tea with them every Saturday, a friendly tea," Suu Kyi says of the generals, who refused to allow her dying husband one last visit to Burma in 1999. And if they turn down a nice cup of tea? "We could always try coffee," she says wryly.

Far from being a simple morality tale of good vs. evil, the Lady against the generals, what happens in Burma carries global significance. Jammed between Asia's two emerging powers, China and India, Burma is strategically sensitive, a critical piece in the new Great Game of global politics. This is no totalitarian backwater like North Korea. Even though many Western governments have imposed sanctions on Burma's military regime for its atrocious human-rights record, a new competition is unfolding in this crossroads nation: regional powers are scrambling for access to Burma's plentiful natural gas, timber and minerals. Already, resource-strapped China is building oil and gas pipelines across Burma to create another vital artery to feed its economic engine. Beijing's cozy ties with Burma have spooked democratic India, which has exchanged earlier condemnation of the junta for trade missions — a stance that earned President Barack Obama's public disapproval when he visited India in November. For Burma's top brass — who have at their disposal a 400,000-strong military corps and a record of institutionalized rape, torture and forced labor — democratic reform would mean not only ceding political supremacy but also surrendering the opportunity to siphon wealth from ever growing state coffers.

Unlike South Africa's apartheid government when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Burma's dictatorship is not in its death throes. If anything, because of burgeoning foreign investment in Burma, especially over the past five years, the junta is even more entrenched than when Suu Kyi was last free, in 2003. Two previous attempts at popular protest have ended with the crackle of gunfire and the silence of a cowed populace. The most recent tragedy came in 2007 when soldiers ended weeks of monk-led protests by mowing down dozens of unarmed civilians.

The other foiled democracy movement was in 1988, when Suu Kyi found herself literally thrust on the political stage. The daughter of assassinated independence hero Aung San, she spent much of her early life overseas in India, the U.S., Japan, Bhutan and England. In the 1980s she was content to focus on academic research and serve as the mother of two sons and the wife of a British academic at Oxford. On picnics in the English countryside, Suu Kyi wore shorts and drank soda; she gave little hint of the democracy icon she would become.

In 1988 the dutiful Asian daughter went home to care for her ill mother. That Rangoon summer grew into Burma's version of a Prague spring. The generals' mismanagement had turned what was once one of Asia's breadbaskets into an economic basket case, and students, monks and workers gathered by the hundreds of thousands to call for the regime's downfall. The army fired on the protesters, some of whom tried to fight back. As the child of the revered general who had vanquished the colonial British, Suu Kyi thought she might have the authority to prevent further clashes. In front of half a million people, she made her first public address, mixing Buddhist values with Gandhian principles of nonviolent resistance. Less than a month after Suu Kyi's plea for peace, the army unleashed another crackdown, killing hundreds. Two years later, the electoral victory of the NLD, the party she helped found, was disregarded. It was as if time stopped in Burma.

Multiple Fronts
Today, despite Suu Kyi's release and the influx of foreign investment that has brought the occasional Hummer and day spa to Rangoon, Burma is still a country preserved in amber. Tropical totalitarianism is deceptive. In North Korea, the broad, desolate avenues and drably dressed citizens make for a perfect tableau of authoritarianism. Burma's sprays of bougainvillea, its gilded pagodas and the sway of schoolgirls dressed in the sarongs called longyis all create a false sense of contentment. But life in Burma is not easy. Roughly 40% of the national budget is spent on the army, while just around 1% each is reserved for health and education. The new capital in Naypyidaw, which means "abode of the kings," was built with billions of dollars, even as nearly a third of Burmese live below the poverty line. For farmers, a hand-to-mouth existence is made worse by routine land seizures and orders to work without pay for the military. Even in Rangoon, power outages are as common as junta informants; both leave the populace in the dark. In a sign of just how removed the generals are from their subjects, confidential U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks refer to the junta lavishing money on a nuclear program with alleged help from North Korea, while junta supremo Than Shwe pondered spending $1 billion on Manchester United at the behest of his soccer-loving grandson.

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