Aung San Suu Kyi may be about to go free, but for how long?

Jack Davies

After 15 years, the Burmese opposition leader is expected to be released from house arrest in less than 48 hours

Every morning Aung San Suu Kyi wakes at 4am knowing there is nowhere she can go, no prospect she will be allowed outside.

Inside the mildewing two-storey villa the Burmese junta has made her prison, the 65-year-old Buddhist meditates, sometimes for hours, before turning her attention to one of five radios, tuned to stations from around the world.


These distant voices – broadcasts from the BBC, Voice of America, rebel news service Democratic Voice of Burma and others – are her only constant link with the outside world. She has no telephone, no TV and no internet. Her mail is heavily censored. Often it is not delivered.

She spends her days reading, in Burmese and English, philosophy, biographies and novels. John le Carré and Georges Simenon are favourites. She was once a keen pianist, but Burma’s muggy heat has warped the instrument.

But Aung San Suu Kyi is not alone. She lives with two long-serving and loyal maids, mother and daughter Khin Khin Win and Win Ma Ma who, bizarrely, have been sentenced with their employer for this final stretch of house detention.

She is allowed few visitors, those who come are strictly vetted and their visits closely monitored. A delivery man brings fresh food daily. Her family doctor pays a house call once a month.

And another of the few who see her is her long-time lawyer and confidant, U Nyan Win, who has a standing fortnightly appointment. He brings her magazines, Time and Newsweek, every time he visits, “because she must know about the news from around the world”.

“She has a simple life in her home. But she can never leave. Not even to go outside into the gardens, to the compound. She is always inside. She is healthy, she exercises in her home. And she has strong spirit, she is determined.”

The once-grand lakeside home she inherited from her mother at 54 University Avenue looks every one of its 90-odd years. Despite some renovations this year, it is still in need of repair and painting.

The electricity fails regularly. For days following Cyclone Nargis in 2008, she read by candlelight. And the villa’s gardens, once immaculately kept, are now overrun by unruly vines. Fifteen years of imprisonment has robbed her of much.

Her husband, British academic Michael Aris, died in 1999 of cancer. She could not visit him while he was dying without risking being exiled from her country forever, and the junta refused him an entry visa to Burma.

She has not seen her two sons in more than a decade. She has never met her grandchildren. Every year her sons apply for visas, every year they are rejected without explanation.

Until this week. In Bangkok yesterday, her youngest son, Kim was granted permission to enter the country. It is not known when he will come to Burma.

“It has been a hard life, she has sacrificed a lot. But she is used [to it] now. And she keeps working, waiting for the day she will be released,” said her lawyer.

For all of Burma, that day is expected as soon as Saturday which is when, according to U Nyan Win, her current sentence expires “and there is no mechanism under Burmese law to extend that detention, to keep her under house arrest. They must let her go.”

There can be no guarantees from a junta that has detained Aung San Suu Kyi, essentially arbitrarily, three times in two decades, but hints from “unnamed military sources” suggest she will be released.

“I have not been told that she will be released, but it is my expectation,” said U Nyan Win, wearing a bright blue longyi and sitting in a wicker chair in his concrete-floored law office in downtown Rangoon.

He was interrupted by a constant stream of phone calls, with half a dozen mobiles across the office ringing for him. Aung San Suu Kyi’s final appeal against her sentence has just been rejected by the supreme court, and her legal team is assessing what it means for her liberty, and deciding their next move.

For the most part, it appears the court’s decision is a moot point. She has almost completed the sentence that she had appealed against: her incarceration was extended by 18 months for “receiving” American John Yettaw, who swam unannounced, and uninvited, across the lake that backs on to Aung San Suu Kyi’s home.

The court, U Nyan Win was told, offered no reason for its decision, simply that the appeal had been rejected.

He is less concerned with the court’s ruling, entirely expected, than with what happens next, if and when she is freed.

Since 1989, when she was first detained, Aung San Suu Kyi’s previous brief spells of freedom have always come with strict conditions from the military. Previously, she has been prohibited from leaving Rangoon, or forced to register with the army whenever she intends to go out of the city.

But she has always railed against any restrictions. In 2000, she spent six days in her car at a military roadblock after being stopped from leaving Rangoon, the standoff only ending when she was put back under house arrest.

Again, U Nyan Win said, she would not accept any conditions on her release this time. “The lady will defy. She will not accept conditions from the regime. She must see her people, she is a politician, the people love to see her free, and she wants to meet with her people.”

U Nyan Win said Aung San Suu Kyi’s first act as a free woman would be to address the Burmese people and speak to the media, local and international.

“She will make a press conference, she needs to speak to the Burmese people but the world too. This is what she always does.”

She also wants to reinvigorate the National League for Democracy, the party she led to victory at the 1990 election but which has since been proscribed by the junta after advocating a boycott of last Sunday’s poll.

All of this is certain to raise the ire of the junta’s ruling generals. On past form, theirs and hers, Aung San Suu Kyi’s liberty could be short-lived. “She never thinks of that. She will do what she needs to do. For her people like before, like always.”

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