First, Burma's military officials told democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi that she couldn't leave Rangoon. Then they told her she couldn't leave her house. Now they want the house. At least that's what Burmese pro-democracy activists and exiles say is the real story behind a court case pitting Suu Kyi against her estranged older brother Aung San Oo. The brother, a computer engineer who lives in San Diego, California, has filed suit claiming half-ownership of their late mother's house, which he says is his rightful inheritance. Suu Kyi returned in 1988 to the two-story, monsoon-stained mansion to care for her ailing mother who died later that year. Since then, it has been her home, her jail, her de facto political headquarters and her fragile sanctuary from the generals. She lived there under house arrest from 1989-95, during which time she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign to restore democracy to Burma.
If Aung San Oo wins the case, there is not much he can do with the house. He is a U.S. citizen, and under Burmese law foreigners are not allowed to own property. He would have to sign it over to his sister, donate it or live in itwhich he is not likely to do. In a written statement to the press, Aung San Oo said he wants to establish joint ownership so the house can eventually be given to a charitable foundation, as his mother wished. But many have their doubts. Members of the Burma Lawyer's Council in Bangkok contend that the suit is part of the military's efforts to destroy Suu Kyi's political party and force her to leave the country. "If Aung San Oo wins, he'll donate his half of the house to the state, and then the military can go in anytime they want," says council member Khin Maung Win. The government, which already occupies a house across the street as a post to monitor Suu Kyi's activities and her visitors, denies it has anything to do with the case.
Is Aung San Oo in league with the generals? Sein Win, the Washington-based prime minister of Burma's government-in-exile and a cousin to the suing siblings, doesn't believe it. He says Aung San Oo, while not politically involved, is himself a democrat who would be unlikely to do the junta's dirty work. He chalks the whole thing up to a misunderstanding, but he concedes that the two are not close. In Rangoon, several people who know the family well say the relationship is strained. During Aung San Oo's last visit to Burma, in July, he went to the house but the siblings did not speak. Their only exchange was held in the confines of a military guesthouse, a venue that likely wasn't Suu Kyi's first choice. That fueled speculation that Aung San Oo is working with the generals, possibly to gain favor in business deals. Lei Lei, Aung San Oo's wife, denies any such link: "My husband is not that stupid, and I'm not that stupid."
Suu Kyi has hired a team of lawyers to represent her, and the case is proceeding in a Rangoon civil court. If the generals are in fact behind the suit, she doesn't have much of a chance. "The courts in Burma are not independent," says Khin Maung Win. In fact, say diplomats in Rangoon, they are a farce, being fully under the control of the military. For her part, Suu Kyi hasn't commented on the case. She can't. She's under house arrest again.