Aung San Suu Kyi is the world’s most famous political prisoner. She has spent 11 of the past 18 years under house arrest in Rangoon, the capital of Burma. Last month, the country's military rulers decided to extend her house arrest when her confinement order expired on May 27, 2006. May 27 was sixteen years ago to the day when Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a crushing 82 per cent of the vote in a general election, a majority that could not have sent a clearer message to the ruling military junta about what the nation thought of its 28-year dictatorship.
Nonetheless the government have ignored the world and indefinitely extended her detention. This was despite pleas such as the one from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan "I'm relying on you, General Than Shwe, to do the right thing," he said, in a direct appeal to the country's senior leader.
Now Annan is saying “despite this setback, the international community cannot abandon the search for improvements in the difficult situation in Myanmar.”
In 1989 the ruling junta renamed the English version of its name from Burma to Myanmar to denote the majority Bamar ethnic group. Myanmar was already the name in Burmese. The West has been slow to embrace the change and organisations such as the BBC and the New York Times still refer to it as Burma.
Burma was a series of independent kingdoms that evolved through the centuries. The Konbaung Dynasty ruled in the 18th and 19th century and fought a series of wars with British India. By the time of the third Anglo-Burmese war in 1885, the British had conquered the whole of the country and turned it into an Indian province. Burma was split from India and set up as a separate colony in 1937. When the Second World War broke out, some leaders such as Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) called for a national uprising against the British. He fled to China but fell into Japanese hands. The Japanese offered him support to form the Burmese Independence Army (BIA).
The Japanese invaded Burma in 1942 and they allowed the BIA to form a provisional government. But the Japanese didn’t like how truly independent they were becoming. They disbanded the BIA and replaced it with the Burmese Defence Army still under Aung San. The Japanese trained this army and they appointed Ba Maw as puppet head of state. A disillusioned Aung San formed an anti-Japanese group and they rose up in rebellion in March 1945. The Japanese were routed and left the country in defeat in May. The British reinstalled a governor who convinced the hugely popular Aung Sun to join a ruling council. In 1947 his party won a landslide victory in Burma’s first election. Unfortunately for him, he and six of his newly formed cabinet members were assassinated on the orders of a conservative politician U Saw.
Despite the assassinations, Burma transitioned to become a democratic republic in 1948. The republic lasted until the military coup of 1962. General Ne Win took over. Ne Win was a contemporary of Aung Sun and one of the leaders who travelled to Toyko for wartime training. He cemented his reputation in the 1950s when he put down the Karen rebellion. Having taken power, he dissolved parliament and ruled alone for the next 26 years. In 1990, free elections were held but the landslide victory of the NLD, the party of Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi was voided by the military, which refused to step down.
Aung San Suu Kyi was only 2 years old when her father was killed. She was educated in English Catholic schools for much of her childhood in Burma. Her mother Khin Kyi was appointed as Burmese ambassador to India in 1960, and Suu Kyi followed, graduating in New Delhi in 1964. She then went to Oxford when she got a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1967. She went to work for the UN in New York and married an Englishman, the Tibetan scholar Michael Aris, in 1972. She returned to her native country in 1988 to care for her ailing mother. In that year, the long-time leader General Ne Win stepped down among democracy demonstrations which were violently suppressed. A new military junta took power. Suu Kyi entered politics, influenced by Ghandi’s theories of non-violence. She founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) and was placed under house arrest in 1989. She was offered freedom in exchange for leaving the country but she refused.
The junta called elections in 1990 which the NLD won easily. However the military refused to hand over power which resulted in international outrage. Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights". She was released from house arrest in 1995 but told she would not be allowed back in if she left the country. Her dying husband was not allowed an entry visa. They never saw each other again as he died in an Oxford hospital in 1999. She was repeatedly prevented from meeting with her party supporters, and in September 2000 was again put under house arrest. The UN negotiated for her release in 2002 and she proclaimed "a new dawn for the country". This dawn was short-lived. In May 2003, her entourage was attacked in a remote northern village by a government-sponsored mob that killed and wounded many of her supporters. Suu Kyi fled the scene but was arrested shortly after. She was imprisoned in Yangon and was again placed under house arrest in Yangon after a hysterectomy in September 2003.
The United Nations has continued to lobby Burma for her release. She is the subject of a high-profile international campaign by the US government, dignitaries and such musical artists as U2, REM and Coldplay. Nonetheless she remains imprisoned under the 1975 State Protection Act which grants the government the power to imprison persons for up to five years without a trial.
General Than Shwe remains implacably opposed to her release and with the support of China and the leadership of ASEAN, he is confident his position is strong enough to ride out the international condemnation. Drug money from the Golden Triangle is widely suspected of keeping the Burmese economy afloat. Shwe’s regime has profited from the flow of drugs across the border into Thailand. Most local investment in that country is laundered drug money. Some five-star hotels, many finance houses and a large percentage of all tourist facilities are built by money from druglords.
And while Suu Kyi remains locked up, none of that is likely to change any time soon.