Myanmar's democracy icon sidelined for election

AP News
Posted: Oct 26, 2010 5:35 AM
Myanmar's democracy icon sidelined for election

On the morning of Myanmar's first election in 20 years, the woman who has come to symbolize the struggle for democracy in her country will rise at 4 a.m. to meditate.

Then she will switch on her four shortwave radios to follow the event from inside the crumbling lakefront villa that is her home _ and prison.

The popular and charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi is right where the ruling military junta wants her: locked away under house arrest. She is barred from running in the Nov. 7 election. Her political party has been dissolved, removing the only viable opposition in the country formerly known as Burma.

The results of the vote appear to be a foregone conclusion. The military, which has run Myanmar since 1962, is expected to continue to do so through a proxy party. Its so-called "roadmap to democracy" is widely seen at home and abroad as a sham to extend military rule with a civilian facade.

Suu Kyi (pronounced Sue-Chee) carried her party to a landslide win in Myanmar's last election in 1990. The ruling generals ignored the results and have kept the Nobel Peace Prize winner locked up on-and-off ever since.

This time, the junta is not taking any chances. The 65-year-old Suu Kyi has been politically neutralized, reduced to a mere observer.

But her story may have a sequel. Her detention expires on Nov. 13, a few days after the election, and many analysts believe Suu Kyi will be granted limited freedom as an olive branch to the international community.

"The military has effectively marginalized Aung San Suu Kyi, because she cannot go out and campaign against the military's election," said Muang Zarni, an exiled dissident and Myanmar research fellow at the London School of Economics. "So in that sense, the military has won. But political struggles are not 100-meter sprints."

"As long as Aung San Suu Kyi walks the streets of Burmese cities, she can mobilize public opinion against the regime," Zarni said. "They are afraid of her popular appeal. And when you (combine) Aung San Suu Kyi and massive discontent, you've got a very explosive situation."

It is largely because of Suu Kyi that Myanmar is not forgotten.

Often compared to Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, the petite and poised Suu Kyi has inspired songs by the rock groups U2 and REM. On her birthdays, Hollywood stars such as George Clooney have joined world leaders and global protests in calls for her freedom.

"She is our beacon of hope. She stands for freedom and democracy in Myanmar," said Moe Moe, a 44-year-old beauty salon owner, one of a dozen people interviewed about the elections in Yangon, the nation's teeming main city.

Municipal worker Soe Maung, 45, described Suu Kyi as "the only person who can save us from poverty and misery, ... the only hope we have."

The military has a history of quashing dissent, instilling fear in the population. Soldiers put down uprisings in 1988 and 2007 with gunfire. The country's prisons hold 2,100 political prisoners, who otherwise might be candidates in the election.

Suu Kyi's lawyer, Nyan Win, said she will be closely watching the election from inside her police-ringed home. Her days follow a strict routine of meditating until 5:30 a.m., then turning on the four radios in her bedroom to listen to the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and a dissident overseas station, the Democratic Voice of Burma.

No phones or Internet connections are allowed in her home, though Suu Kyi said through her lawyer recently that she looks forward to joining Twitter one day to chat with the younger generation.

She likes to paint nature scenes and is an avid reader; her lawyer recently dropped off a load of books that included English classics and biographies, French travelogues and history and Burmese-language Buddhist texts.

Suu Kyi has been described as an accidental leader. She grew up partly in India, where her mother was ambassador. She later attended Oxford, worked for the United Nations in New York and then married British academic Michael Aris and raised their two sons in England.

She stumbled into politics at age 43, when she returned to Myanmar in 1988 to nurse her dying mother just as an uprising erupted.

But politics was also her pedigree. Her father was Myanmar's independence hero, Gen. Aung San, who was gunned down by political rivals in 1947 when she was 2. She inherited her father's charisma, a fierce nationalism and stubborn streak.

Suu Kyi has been criticized, at times, for taking a moral high ground that allows little room for compromise. Some analysts and supporters believe she erred in encouraging her party, the National League for Democracy, to boycott the election, which she calls rigged and unfair. The boycott led to her party's dissolution.

Supporters praise Suu Kyi for never veering from her call for true democracy.

In an interview with The Associated Press in 1996, she asked, "How can you bring multiparty democracy to Burma if you do not allow the parties to operate freely?"

Her commitment to the cause has come at high personal cost. She last saw her sons Alexander and Kim in 2000, the year after her husband died of cancer in England. She has since refused to leave Myanmar for fear of not being allowed back, and her sons, now in their 30s, have been denied entry. She has two grandchildren she has never met.

If she is released on Nov. 13, Myanmar experts say her freedom could be short-lived, as has been the case in the past. She also may need to redefine her role, now that her party no longer exists.

"I think she is trying to find new ground upon which to stand and really open a new era," said Josef Silverstein, a Myanmar expert at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "But that will depend on the military."