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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Although Suu Kyi's moral imprimatur helped bring Western sanctions against the regime, the fact that many ordinary Burmese also feel their effects hasn't escaped her. "I am ready to reconsider my support of sanctions if it's for the benefit of all of us," she told me with surprising vehemence, countering critics who think her too unyielding. "I'm not afraid to consider change." Her openness will surely ignite further debate in Washington, where there is a growing recognition that sanctions on Burma, despite their moral appeal, have not worked.

But the most immediate revolution is needed within Suu Kyi's party. Ever since the unfair outcome of the 1990 elections, the NLD has been stuck in a time warp, endlessly arguing over arcane policy and political theory even as many of its leaders get grayer and more stooped. There is a strange parallel between Burma's geriatric opposition leaders, known as the Uncles, and the junta's clutch of aged generals. In a 2008 cable released by WikiLeaks, an American diplomat in Rangoon bemoaned, "The way the Uncles run the NLD indicates the party is not the last great hope for democracy and Burma." Since then, a leadership reshuffle has reinvigorated the party to a certain extent, and Suu Kyi's release has galvanized a new generation of political youth. But it's no wonder that a younger NLD faction called the National Democratic Force defied the NLD's (and Suu Kyi's) call for an electoral boycott and contested the November polls. Suu Kyi says she's not worried about a possible split in the opposition. "We are all fighting for democracy," she says. "Our goals are the same."

Suu Kyi, a woman who first used a cell phone on the day of her release, says she's committed to nurturing a new generation of technologically savvy political youth. "The advantage is they're very electronic. They can communicate with the world," she says, referring to the NLD youth wing's members who use Facebook to debate politics when there's enough electricity to power computers. "Everything goes on the Internet. Did you know that?" The equalizing power of the digital revolution ties in nicely with the philosophy that has inspired Suu Kyi, that of Czech dissident and fellow Peace Prize laureate Vaclav Havel, who wrote of "the power of the powerless." "My very top priority is for people to understand that they have the power to change things themselves," she says. "Then we can do it together. Then we'll be home and dry."

A Heavy Burden
It's a lot to ask of one woman: rejuvenate her banned party, persuade the generals to talk, make the cause of Burma a global priority, minister to the sick, comfort the families of political prisoners. Serving as an icon of democracy is hard enough, without having to deal with the nitty-gritty of everyday political life. Add to that the real worry that Suu Kyi may be operating on borrowed time. "Our people are in and out of prison all the time," she says. "All I have to say is, 'Is so-and-so in or out?' and they know exactly what I mean."

For now, she is out. But there's little doubt that if the junta sees in her any realistic challenge to its authority, she will be sent in again on whatever spurious charge the military can concoct. "I want to do as much as I can while I'm free," she says. "I don't want to tire myself out, but we never know how much time we have."

Beyond the possibility of rearrest, Suu Kyi's safety is an even more fundamental concern. The army has shown it is quite prepared both to lock her up and to endanger her life. On three occasions, Suu Kyi and her supporters have been attacked by mysterious thugs, with resulting fatalities. "She is like her father in that she has no qualms about losing her life," says Win Htein, an NLD elder who was released in July after 14 years in jail. Suu Kyi gasps when I ask her whether she would consider wearing a bulletproof vest. "I wouldn't dream of it," she says. "Then it would look like I'm trying to protect myself from the people who support me."

Suu Kyi may cherish her interactions with ordinary Burmese, but there is a distant quality to her, a sense that she lives most comfortably in her head, not among the crowds. Part of her remove is born of circumstance. She speaks proudly of being her father's favorite child, yet he was assassinated by political rivals when she was just 2. For so much of her recent life, Suu Kyi has been sequestered from normal human contact; noble ideas and fine words have kept her company. While under house arrest, she obsessively read books ranging from biographies to spy thrillers. "People think that I had nothing to do [while in detention]," she says. "But I spent five or six hours listening to the radio every day. If you're under house arrest and you miss one item, there's no one there to tell you about it, so I listened very carefully." Even her taste in classical music speaks to her sense of discipline and composure. Mozart, she says, makes her happy, which is all well and good. But she prefers Bach. "He makes me calm," she says. "I need calm in my life."

Right now, Suu Kyi is in the eye of a storm, a place of deceptive tranquility. Rangoon is a city of whispers, and while the people I met there used different words — a honeymoon, a window, a reprieve — their hushed intent was the same: this, they felt, was the calm before the crackdown. The November elections were part of what the generals call a transition to a "discipline-flourishing democracy." One thing is certain: when the fig leaf of civilian government arrives in 2011, there will be no place in it for the Lady.

Still, for all her years of imprisonment and whatever travails may come, Suu Kyi considers herself lucky. It's not because of the people's adoration of her but because of their respect — a value she believes stems from a generosity of spirit. "In my life, I have been showered with kindness," she says. "More than love, I value kindness. Love comes and goes, but kindness remains." When her son Kim was in Rangoon to see her for the first time in a decade, his kindness came in the form of a gift, a puppy to keep her company. "He's my guard dog," she jokes, even though the tiny mutt hasn't shown much bark or bite. "He has an active tail and lets me know when someone is coming. That should be enough, don't you think? A little wag of the tail?"

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