Why Aung San Suu Kyi is the world's most effectively sidelined leader.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 3 2009 1:05 PM

Come Hell or High Water, the Burmese Junta Endures

Aung San Suu Kyi is the world's most effectively sidelined leader.

In a rare outing from the Rangoon home in which she is imprisoned, democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi met with U.N. special envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari on Monday to discuss the possibility of political reform in her country.

This marks Gambari's seventh trip to Burma, a country locked in a military dictatorship since 1962. His efforts have had little effect. During Gambari's last visit, Suu Kyi refused to meet with him at all, in apparent protest over the ineffectiveness of the United Nations' diplomatic brokerage between her and the military.

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In their meeting, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party leaders trotted out their steadfast demands: that all political prisoners be released, the new constitution be reviewed, and Suu Kyi's 1990 election victory be acknowledged.

It must have been painfully evident to everyone that the elephant in the room was sighing. As long as the recalcitrant generals are at the helm in Burma, none of these demands is likely to be met anytime soon.

Suu Kyi's own history is evidence enough. She is nearing her 14th year of detention because of the political threat she poses to Burma's 47-year-old military junta.

Since her first imprisonment 19 years ago, Suu Kyi has received dozens of major international awards she could not collect personally, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. In January, Queen Noor of Jordan gave her the Trumpet of Conscience Award for her continued nonviolent fight for freedom. Perhaps most disappointing of all was the election she and the NLD won by a landslide in 1990. The military annulled the results, locked up the party leaders, and plunged the country into another devastating era of martial law.

Military-ruled Burma is not a nation to which change comes quickly. In North Korean fashion, the xenophobic generals have isolated their country in a time warp to buttress their power. Pre-World War II commuter buses grumble along the streets of Rangoon. Political change in Burma comes slowest of all. Today, 16 months after crushing the monk-led pro-democracy uprisings in Rangoon and eight months after sabotaging the international aid effort to help the millions affected by Cyclone Nargis, the Burmese military junta has proved that neither hell nor high water can shake it from power.

Nor, apparently, can Aung San Suu Kyi, who at 63 remains the most effectively marginalized political leader in the world. Daughter of Aung San, Burma's independence hero, Suu Kyi has symbolized Burma's greatest hopes for democracy for the last 20 years. Educated at Oxford, Suu Kyi is a devout Buddhist, an artful writer, and a charismatic orator. To most Burmese, she is known simply as "The Lady."

The closest I got to Suu Kyi was in a paddleboat offshore from her lakeside home in Rangoon. Ironically, her house lies just opposite the crumbling residence of the late Gen. Ne Win, who founded Burma's military regime in 1962. Guards keep watch over her house at all hours, and nine Burmese were recently arrested for venturing too close. But though Suu Kyi's physical presence is limited to her family's compound, The Lady was seldom far from the minds of the Burmese I spoke with.

"In Burma, human rights, no," a man named Nyein told me one afternoon in a tea shop, using all the English he had. Worried about being overheard by a government spy (one in four residents of Rangoon is thought to be a government informant), Nyein edged his stool closer to mine and looked away. "All people like Aung San Suu Kyi," he said. He folded his hands at the wrists under the table. "But talking, danger." And then he left.

As their lives go from bad to worse and the international community fails to put any meaningful pressure on their government, many Burmese are beginning to lose hope that the military will ever be vanquished. In Burma, little could be more dangerous than the status quo.

The majority of the population here lives on less than $1 a day while almost half of the national budget is spent on the military. Underneath the government's propaganda billboards, beggars ply the streets by day. Prostitutes take their turf at night, dolled-up and doe-eyed outside the cinemas and under the bypasses, trawling for a livelihood in a country that is the source of four unique strains of HIV, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report. In Burma, 360 children die of preventable diseases every day because the junta puts only 3 percent of the budget into health care.

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