Friday 19 November 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi: I was both prisoner and maintenance woman

Finally free from the clutches of Burma's ruling generals and the lonely life of house arrest they subjected her to, Aung San Suu Kyi now finds she cannot escape from herself.
At the headquarters of her currently-outlawed political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), images of her are everywhere: on posters, calendars and pamphlets, T-shirts, necklaces and earrings.
As she poses politely for photos, the Guardian asks who the golden bust behind her represents. "It's supposed to be me," she says. "I wish people wouldn't make busts or posters of me, it is a very strange thing to be looking at yourself all the time. It's not like this at my house, I promise you. I have pictures of my children."
The building is filled to overflowing; the noise of a hundred conversations reverberate off the peeling wars and concrete floors. Today, there are more people than chairs, and those left without crouch against walls.
Across the road, perched on conspicuous orange motorbikes, the government's spies are kept busy, watching her party headquarters through camera lenses and binoculars. But Aung San Suu Kyi is unconcerned about the attention from the military's special branch. They will be her companion every day she is free.
"That is for them to worry about. I can only do what I feel I need to do, what I can do for the people of Burma," she says. "They will follow me, I cannot stop that. I cannot worry."
Aung San Suu Kyi is 65, but looks 20 years younger. A hint of grey at her temples is the only physical sign of the strains of two decades spent resisting a brutal military regime. She has a piercing gaze, which rarely moves from her interrogator, and her response is deliberate when pushed about the government's overt, hostile attention. She is not frightened that she could be detained again – a fate that has befallen her for 15 of the last 21 years.
"It is not a fear, it's a possibility that I live with. I understand that is the situation, and I have to accept it. They have done it before, and it is very possible they will do it again, but it is not something I fear every day. It is my situation."
It is nearly a week since military officials came to her door at 54 University Avenue, Rangoon, and told her she was free, noting perversely, her good behaviour.
Since then, she has been almost constantly in meetings of one sort or another. Diplomats and journalists from every corner of the globe have formed a queue at the bottom of the stairs leading to her door. She has taken phone calls from presidents and prime ministers. She has met with NLD party elders to discuss strategy and legal challenges and sanctions policy.
But she has stopped too, amid the throng of admirers, to talk to people on the street, old women who claim kinship, children who have a flower for her.
She has spoken with her sons by phone every day – something she could never do before, though there is no word on when she will be allowed to see them – she has visited the high court to lodge an appeal against her party's disbanding, and visited an HIV/AIDS shelter. Everywhere she goes, she is mobbed.
She is happy, "because now I am free".
She talks candidly about her years under house arrest, saying it was "far, far easier" than the time currently being served by Burma's 2,100 political prisoners. They must be freed before any real progress will be made, she insists.
Reluctantly, she concedes that there were moments of pessimism. "Despair is not the right word, but there were times that I would worry … a lot, not so much for myself, for my situation, but for the future of the country."
But she has little time for introspection and none for self-pity. The overwhelming feeling during the last seven-and-a-half years she spent confined to her damp, two-storey home was, she says, that "there weren't enough hours in the day".
"As unbelievable as it may sound, it's true. When I tell you that I had to listen to the radio for six hours every day, that is a big chunk of time, and that was solid work, just to make sure I caught all of the Burmese programs, just so I could keep up with what was going on. Because if I missed something, there was no one to come around to tell me 'did you hear about'. I needed to keep myself informed."
She says she read, for work and pleasure, biographies and spy novels were favourites at the end of the day, and she meditated regularly. "And then there was the house to run and to maintain, there really was a lot to do."
She laughs at the ridiculous lengths the junta went to in its ad hoc imprisonment. "I was both prisoner and maintenance woman," she says, mimicking a feeble effort with a hammer.
"No one was allowed to come to fix the house. I had to fix everything that went wrong around the place. The two people I was with (her live-in maids, a mother and daughter) were completely non-mechanical and non-electrical, so I had to learn with great difficulty how to do these things."
She was not always successful. For several days following cyclone Nargis in 2008, the trio lived by candlelight.
But she is less interested in reflecting on the years of isolation than on what happens next in her country.
Internationally, Aung San Suu Kyi's release has been described as Burma's "Mandela moment", comparing it to the day in 1990 when Nelson Mandela walked free from prison in South Africa. She hopes it may one day prove so, but is wary of the comparison now.
"I think that our situation is much more difficult than South Africa's. South Africa had already made some movement towards democracy when Mandela was released. Here in Burma, we are nowhere near that. We haven't even begun."
"And I feel our case is a lot more difficult than South Africa."
South Africa's fault line was clear-cut, apartheid was based on race, she says. "Colour is something that everyone can see straight away. Here, it is less obvious who is who, because we are all Burmese. It is Burmese discriminating and oppressing Burmese.
"I have often thought everything would be much easier if all the NLD supporters were coloured purple. Then it would be obvious who is being jailed and who is being discriminated against. And the international community would be angered more easily, they could easily say 'you cannot discriminate against the purples'."
Where Burma goes from here is unclear, she says, "we are a country in limbo".
She realises the power of her freedom to the people of Burma, though she is always conscious that there are many others in her movement, and thousands still in prison. "I don't believe in one person's influence and authority to move a country forward. I am honoured by the trust people have in me, but one person alone can not bring democracy to a country.
"Change is going to come from the people. I want to play my role … I want to work in unison with the people of Burma, but it is they who will change this country."

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