Imprisoned at home, activist turns 60


YANGON, Myanmar - She is known simply as The Lady. She lives in isolation in her old family home on a quiet lake in the northern part of the city. Armed guards make sure she doesn't leave. Her only known visitor is the doctor who checks on her monthly. She is said to spend her time meditating and reading.

The world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent nearly 10 of the past 16 years under house arrest or behind bars. There is no sign that Myanmar's military regime plans to free her anytime soon.

Today, the devout Buddhist, who received the prize in 1991 for her nonviolent struggle for democracy in Myanmar, turns 60. Supporters around the globe are holding protests and concerts in more than a dozen cities, but no public celebration is planned here, for fear of government retribution.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962 when Ne Win took power in a coup. In 1988, amid violent protests, the army seized control, massacring thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in the capital Rangoon, now Yangon, and other cities.

Bowing to public pressure, the military held elections in 1990, in which the National League for Democracy, which Suu Kyi helped found, won 82 percent of the seats in the national assembly. But the junta refused to hand over power, and a committee of generals has run the country.

Sanctions imposed by the United States and other nations aimed at securing Suu Kyi's freedom have helped to cripple the economy, but the military dictatorship headed by Sr. Gen. Than Shwe remains firmly in command.

Once one of the wealthiest nations in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is now one of the poorest. The country is mostly closed to the outside world. There are none of the McDonald's, Starbucks or KFC outlets here that have become ubiquitous in Southeast Asian cities. Instead, workers crowd onto dilapidated buses. Women commonly walk down the streets of central Yangon carrying goods on their heads.

Secret police and a network of informers watch over the populace. Listening to radio broadcasts from overseas or watching foreign shows on satellite television can result in seven years in prison. Foreign journalists are rarely let into the country.

Dissidents are arrested in the middle of the night and vanish into the prison system. There are more than 1,300 political detainees, rights groups say, including other leaders of Suu Kyi's party. Members of the public interviewed for this article asked not to be identified by name out of fear for their safety.

Around the world, Suu Kyi (pronounced Soo Chee) has been celebrated for her advocacy of nonviolence to achieve democracy. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Thursday that instead of being under house arrest, she should be "out amongst the people and her supporters, pushing for stability and democracy and democratization of her society."

Rock musicians including Paul McCartney, U2 and Pearl Jam have dedicated songs to her. On Friday, Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, tried to deliver 6,000 birthday cards for Suu Kyi at the Myanmar Embassy in Washington. No one accepted them.

Those who know Suu Kyi describe her as charming, idealistic and brilliant. Slender and graceful, she dresses in traditional Burmese attire and often wears a flower in her hair. She is widely admired for her principled stand and self-sacrifice.

Suu Kyi believes the military should honor the results of the 1990 election and hand over power to the National League for Democracy, which she heads as general secretary. She has repeatedly demanded the release of political prisoners.

She projects a sense of calm but can be exacting and formidable.

"This is a very tough lady," said a Western diplomat who has met with her numerous times. "She is very focused. She is willing to put up with a lot to defend the principles that she sees as important. Compromise is not necessarily a term she is comfortable with."

Some diplomats in Yangon suggest that she could have done more when she was free to bring about dialogue with the regime and work out a power-sharing agreement, as Nelson Mandela did in South Africa.

"The moral high ground is the place where she feels most comfortable," one said. "She has an idealistic view of the world. I don't think she has been prepared to make some slightly dirty compromises to move the situation forward."

Yet it's uncertain that anyone inside the country could persuade the regime to make compromises.

In October, Than Shwe ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Gen. Khin Nyunt, who had proposed a "road map" to democracy. The general, who ranked third in the ruling committee and served as chief of military intelligence, was charged with corruption. His two sons, 38 of his subordinates and his fortune teller have been sent to prison.

Earlier, Than Shwe imprisoned the family of former ruler Ne Win for allegedly organizing a coup. Sanda Win, the late general's influential daughter, is under house arrest across the lake from Suu Kyi.

Human rights groups point to abuses by the military regime: murdering political opponents; imprisoning and torturing others without trial; raping and murdering women in conflict zones; enslaving workers and forcing them to build roads and work in the fields. The army has conscripted 70,000 child soldiers, more than any other nation, critics say, and Myanmar grows more opium than any country but Afghanistan.

In 2003, during her last period of freedom, Suu Kyi traveled in northern Myanmar, and large crowds gathered. At one stop, she climbed atop a fire truck to face down police and firefighters who planned to turn water hoses on the crowd.

Later, government-backed thugs armed with clubs and sharpened bamboo sticks attacked her motorcade outside the village of Depeyin. Some believe the assault was an assassination attempt.

Suu Kyi's bodyguards and supporters fended off the attackers and saved her by covering her with their own bodies. The government says four people died in the attack; the opposition says the death toll may have reached 200. Suu Kyi suffered minor injuries. Soon after, the regime arrested the charismatic leader for the third time, saying it was for her own protection.

While Suu Kyi has gained global fame, the dictatorship that locked her up remains mysterious. Than Shwe, 74, who took power at the head of a military committee in 1992, prefers to rule from behind the scenes. The junta, previously called SLORC, or State Law and Order Restoration Council, is now known by the equally Orwellian name, State Peace and Development Committee.

As always, anyone who approaches Suu Kyi's house is stopped at police checkpoints. Army photographers take their pictures before sending them away or arresting them.

But if her past practice in detention is any guide, Suu Kyi is spending today with the sense of celebration that comes from standing up for what she believes is right.

"You know, I always felt free," she said in a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, after her first six years in detention. "I felt free when I was under house arrest because it was my choice. I chose to do what I'm doing, and because of that I found peace within myself. And I suppose that is what freedom is all about."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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