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Lady in Waiting

Burma Dispatch

Being arrested is never pleasant, but, when your detainers are wearing flip-flops and sarongs, it's somehow less threatening. I had already given my exposed rolls of film to an acquaintance to smuggle out of Burma, so the police had to settle for an unexposed one left in the camera. My notes, in Polish, were briefly examined, then ignored. And with that I was summarily deported--just a few hours before my planned departure.

I had been taken into custody just after leaving the headquarters of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in Rangoon, where I had met with 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Throughout my stay in Burma, everyone kept asking me excitedly, "Will you see the Lady?" So it seemed natural that my interrogators, too, would ask the same thing. "Did you see the Lady?" they barked.

That her admirers and detractors alike refer to Suu Kyi as "the Lady" is a testament to how she has become the absolute center of everyone's attention. In the junta mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar, she is "[w]hite alien's wife Suu Kyi who is conspiring to sell the Union into the hands of neocolonialists." The paper also runs poems about her. A sample from the December 23, 1998, edition: "Here, woman, the people knowing/The story of puppet on strings/Nothing good you are doing/Even when not in power/Adorned with deception of yours/Gives orders, a woman inferior/Just retrace your steps/To your husband, go back/You were not asked to come."

To the Burmese people, however, Suu Kyi is practically a saint, the repository of all their hopes--which is both uplifting and a little unsettling. There is a spontaneous cult of personality around her. A business woman asked me: "You like my dress top? She wears a similar one." A bike renter in Mandalay explained it to me according to a simple formula: "She is the daughter of the father of the nation. So the Lady is the nation." To prove it, he gave me five different banknotes emblazoned with the picture of her father, Gen. Aung San. Throughout Burma, streets, parks, and squares are named after him, and his statues are everywhere. Although he was assassinated in July 1947, six months before Burma's independence, he is the national hero and, in a paradoxical twist, the founder of the Burmese Army, which controls the current junta.

The military dictatorship began in 1962 with a coup that brought Gen. Ne Win to power. Soon the country was on the autarkical "Burmese way to socialism," which, like all roads in this direction, was a bumpy downhill path. Opposition grew, and, in June 1988, Ne Win resigned. Burma enjoyed a "Rangoon spring" only to see it crushed in a major military crackdown that began on August 8, 1988. In April of that year, Aung San Suu Kyi had come to visit her ailing mother from Oxford, England, where she had been living with her British husband, Michael Aris, and their two sons. Even before they were married, she had written to Aris: "I only ask one thing, that, should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them."

In the wake of the crackdown, the Burmese people's need was all too apparent. On August 26, Suu Kyi spoke at a rally outside Rangoon's Shwedagon Pagoda: "I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on. This national crisis could, in fact, be called the second struggle for national independence." This speech sealed her position as the leader of the burgeoning democratic movement.

By September, the death toll was in the thousands. The generals formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council, known as SLORC--a rather unfortunate name that, on the advice of a Washington-based public relations firm, was later changed to SPDC for State Peace and Development Council. Within a week of SLORC's formation, Suu Kyi and dissident Burmese officers founded the NLD. In 1990, demonstrating its total ignorance of the national mood, the junta confidently organized elections. The NLD, led by Suu Kyi, won 82 percent of the seats even though, a few months earlier, the generals had put her under house arrest. The junta refused to hand over power and increased repression.

Ne Win, now 88, continues to wield power from behind the scenes. As for Suu Kyi, she remained under house arrest for the next six years. Nowadays, it is almost impossible to see her. Her family house is off-limits for most locals and foreigners; even DHL can't deliver packages. And her movements are restricted when she tries to visit supporters outside Rangoon. Twice last summer, when the military blocked her route, she conducted a silent protest by remaining in her car for several days.

These standoffs were planned to coincide both with a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and with the anniversary of the August 1988 crackdown or "8/8/88" as it is known here. "People all over the world need to be alerted to what is happening in Burma [or else] it will be difficult for them to voice their support for what we are doing," Suu Kyi explained at the time. "I think keeping lines of communication open is very, very important."

Keeping those lines open is easier said than done. Nobody who is anybody in the NLD is allowed a working telephone. To arrange my meeting with Suu Kyi, I had to make three nighttime visits to the home of a go-between--meowing like a cat to get his dogs' attention without alerting the surveillance team across the street and retrieving messages from him left on a gate outside his house. I met Suu Kyi at the party headquarters in Rangoon. The shabby, two-story building is easy to spot because of the crowd of plainclothes and uniformed officers milling about outside. The inside is bare, save for a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in English, many portraits of Gen. Aung San, and the NLD flag, a yellow fighting peacock on a red background.

When I arrived, the hall downstairs was filled with women and their malnourished children, many crying. Suu Kyi stood at the front, handing out spoonfuls of some type of formula to each child as his name was called on a bullhorn. Each mother received a bottle of the formula to take home. This long, noisy, exhausting event was obviously a way for her to stay in touch with her people, just like the distribution of rice that she does personally every Monday. However, attendance is low because of intimidation by military intelligence.

I spoke with her deputy, Tin Oo, about what it would take to trigger an uprising against the junta. A students' revolt is unlikely: since December 1996, the generals have kept all the faculties closed. This general-turned-dissident thought that economic desperation would produce dissent. I couldn't imagine it getting more desperate.

Finally, Suu Kyi joined us. At age 53, she looks a good 20 years younger. She is graceful and possesses what the French call charme hypnotique, yet she is also tough and matter-of-fact. At the time, I did not know the news that she knew and was probably devastated by: namely, that her husband, whom she had not seen since Christmas of 1995, was dying of prostate cancer. The authorities have refused to grant him a visa, and thus Suu Kyi has been given a Hobson's choice. If she leaves Burma to see her husband, she will almost certainly not be allowed back in. And, if she stays, she will never get a chance to say goodbye to Aris before he dies.

I asked her about a rumored deal whereby, in exchange for World Bank aid and a promise by the NLD to rescind its calls to convene the parliament, the generals would release political prisoners, open a dialogue with the NLD, and allow it to function as a political party. Suu Kyi pooh-poohed the rumor: the NLD was ready to talk and have negotiations with the authorities with or without the World Bank. But the NLD would never put a price tag on giving up its democratic right to convene parliament.

Perhaps Suu Kyi wanted to discredit the deal because it would have interfered with current international economic sanctions, which, the NLD maintains, are vital. But, as one Western diplomat pointed out to me, Burma's very backwardness--the only major foreign investment here is a controversial pipeline in the south owned jointly by Total of France, Unocal of the United States, and the Petroleum Authority of Thailand (with 15 percent staying in the hands of the Burmese junta)--makes the country less vulnerable to economic pressure. "Can a country that for years was closed to the outside world and practiced autarky be seriously hit by isolation?" the diplomat asked.

Meanwhile, the junta's financial policy is bizarre enough to scare off most would-be investors even if existing sanctions were lifted. The official exchange rate is six kyat to a dollar, while the unofficial one is 60 times higher. Banknotes have peculiar denominations of 45 and 90 kyat because Ne Win believes in the power of the number nine. In September 1987, the government canceled all banknotes of the two highest denominations, thus wiping out 80 percent of the money in circulation.

I asked Suu Kyi whether she did not fear that the Burmese, seeing no positive results from her pacifist resistance methods, would turn to violence like the Albanians in Kosovo have. She snapped that the Burmese knew hers was the right way--Southeast Asia is not the Balkans. Suu Kyi was very impressed by Vaclav Havel's classic essay "The Power of the Powerless." We spoke about Havel's house arrest, and this led to a discussion of the different ways totalitarian regimes treat dissidents. I asked if the authorities' campaign against the NLD was effective. "Yes," said Suu Kyi. "This is very serious; imprisonments are seriously hampering our work."

I later learned the exact figures: 193--almost half--of the NLD parliamentarians elected in 1990 are in detention or, as the junta puts it, "sequestered" in "guest houses" where conversations "foster greater understanding of the situation in the country." Most jailed NLD members are released only if they renounce all political activities. Almost 3,000 members have done so since September--the official radio, TV, and newspaper keep a tally. Suu Kyi maintains that the very fact that the government bothers to publicize the numbers shows how afraid it is of the NLD. Furthermore, she said, many of those who supposedly resigned had not been active members, while activists who are forced to resign often continue party activities.

Nonetheless, a Western diplomat who has been in Rangoon for a long time called the whole Burmese political scene "virtual politics": the SPDC has no credibility while the NLD is bottled up. Although the NLD recently created shadow ministries, there is not much it can do with half of the members of parliament "guest-housed." "What will be left?" the diplomat asked with genuine worry. "Just a core of heroes around the Lady?"

In Mandalay, an 84-year-old woman asked me, "Do you think I will live to see this change?" It took all my optimism to mumble that maybe the dissidents can turn the tables on Gen. Ne Win and make the number nine work for them--i.e., overthrow the junta on 9/9/99. But she knew I said it out of sympathy for her rather than conviction. But perhaps not everything is lost. The policewoman who searched me after my arrest was assigned to watch me at the airport on the last leg of my deportation. Boredom made her talkative. It turned out that she had not been told why she was searching me. "What did you do to get into trouble?" she asked. "You don't know? I went to see Aung San Suu Kyi," I said. "Oh, you saw the Lady!" she exclaimed. "How is she?"

By Anna Husarska