Aung San Suu Kyi: death by the tatmadaw’s thousand cuts

Burmese military have banned media and diplomats from attending the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi charged with breaking the terms of her house arrest. The move is the latest outrageous measure to shut down the greatest thorn in the military’s dictatorial side. An American Mormon John Yettaw gave them the excuse when he was caught spending two days at her house after he swam across the lake to visit her last week. Authorities charged the Nobel Peace Prize winner with violating the terms of her house arrest. She and her housekeepers could be jailed for five years (Yettaw faces six). On the third day of the “trial” yesterday, the government allowed outsiders observe her in court. Pictures of Suu Kyi in good health appeared on Burmese TV and newspapers. Censorship resumed today and the prospects are not good for the 63-year-old. Aung San Suu Kyi has now spent 13 of her last 19 years in detention since she won Burma’s last democratic election in 1990.

The tatmadaw (Burmese military) was the beloved creation of her father Aung San. Aung Sun was a war hero and the father of Burmese independence. The date of his 1947 assassination is still preserved as a sombre holiday in Burma. The room in the government building where he was shot is now a shrine.

His aura was used to good effect by the Ne Win military administration after the 1962 army coup. Commemorations have been drastically reduced after the SLORC junta declared his daughter’s NLD party victory invalid in 1990. Photos of Aung San have disappeared from public circulation and he is rarely quoted in the press. By downgrading his image, the army is attempting to eliminate the nationalistic identity of his daughter.

Aung San Suu Kyi was two when her father died. Burma became independent from Britain a year after his death. In 1956, the 11-year-old Suu Kyi was enrolled at Rangoon’s Methodist English High School. She met children from Burma’s best families and topped her class. In 1960 her mother was appointed Burmese ambassador to India and the family moved to New Delhi where they lived for the next three years. In 1962 General Ne Win launched a coup against the democratic government and Burma began to shut its doors on the rest of the world and descend into poverty.

Safe in India, Suu Kyi studied until 1964 before enrolling at Oxford to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics. She graduated with a BA in 1967 and went to work for the UN in New York before returning to Oxford in 1972 where she married the Himalayan studies academic Michael Aris. They had two sons. Though Burma was never far from her mind, it seemed she would never return there.

Her life changed forever in March 1988 when she got a phone call to say her mother was ill in Rangoon after a severe stroke. Arriving home in April she found life in Burma had changed for the worse since she left as a child. The country that used to be the rice basket of Asia now could not feed itself.

A protest movement was growing against the tatmadaw and her status as Aung San’s daughter made her a natural focus of opposition attention. In August she addressed a mass rally at Burma’s most prominent shrine, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. A half million people gathered to hear her speak. She quietly told them she supported multi-party democracy and called for a minute’s silence to honour those who had died in the struggle. She spoke not of vengeance but of reconciliation and healing.

Suu Kyi’s eerie performance electrified the crowd and touched a raw Burmese nerve. Her mother died in December 1988 and huge crowds lined the streets in her honour. When the SLORC surprisingly called an election for 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi was the obvious choice to lead the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). Embolded by the scale of her support, she threw caution to the wind and denounced Ne Win’s government. This was the excuse the army needed and they placed her under house arrest. She was still in jail when she heard the election result. It was a landslide, the NPD won 392 of the 485 seats. The army were horrified and cancelled the election claiming the NPD was manipulated by outlawed Communist parties and interfering foreign embassies.

The tatmadaw arrested all the opposition leaders and destroyed most of the NLD’s political infrastructure. Aung San Suu Kyi remained a powerful figurehead in jail whom the government knew they could not martyr. Foreign media got interested. Aung San Suu Kyi was an attractive, poignant and brave victim perfect for Western media consumption.

SLORC ignored all appeals from the US and the UN for her release. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. The committee said she was “one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades…She has become an important symbol of the struggle against oppression [using] non-violent means to resist a regime characterised by brutality”. Her son Alexander accepted the award in Oslo. Though Burmese media ignored the ceremony, most people found out through radio broadcasts from abroad. Demonstrations broke out at the University of Rangoon but were ruthlessly suppressed by the government.

In 1995 Suu Kyi was released from house arrest under pressure from Japan which threatened to withhold aid. She reorganised the opposition and held gateside meetings every Sunday outside her house to large crowds. The Burmese media continued relentless attacks against her. The tatmadaw stymied her attempts to visit local party chapters, occasionally leaving her stranded in the countryside or at Rangoon train station ahead of planned monster meetings.

In 1999, the SLORC (now renamed SPDC) refused a Burmese visa for Suu Kyi’s British husband Michael Aris terminally ill with cancer in Oxford. Because Suu Kyi could not trust the government to let her back in the country, she did not see him again before he died. She was re-placed under house arrest between 2000 for another two years, and after twelve months free, they arrested her again in 2003. Since then, the government have found excuses to extend the detention on a yearly basis despite it being against Burmese law to confine someone for five years without a charge.

Just before Yettaw made his fateful swim across the lake last week, Suu Kyi was treated at home for low blood pressure and dehydration. While she was believed to be recovering, she could not get access to her usual doctor who had been detained for questioning. Her detention in Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison could have done little for her health. Burmese authorities are imposing the equivalent of a death sentence by a thousand cuts on one of the world’s most courageous leaders.


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