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Myanmar's 'Invisible Woman' Still a Symbol
Published on Thursday, December 15, 2005 by the Associated Press
Myanmar's 'Invisible Woman' Still a Symbol
by Michael Casey

Cut off from the outside world, Myanmar's most famous citizen spends her days reading, listening to the radio and meditating. The only visitor allowed into her rundown, two-story villa is a doctor. Her political party has been decimated by arrests and harassment.

"There is a climate of fear but within this climate of fear I'm very proud to say there are many, many brave people ... they're committed enough to carry on with their work, in spite of their fear. Those are the really courageous ones and I'm very proud of them." ~ Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Aung San Suu Kyi in Arakan, 2002
People in this, one of Asia's most isolated countries, are scared to whisper the name of Aung San Suu Kyi. Just to drive near the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's heavily guarded house is to court arrest.

The petite, pro-democracy leader who used to appear before adoring crowds in her trademark yellow sarong and jasmine flower in her hair hasn't been seen in public for more than 2 1/2 years. At 60, she remains the face of an international campaign to oust the regime through economic sanctions and political pressure. But with her house arrest just extended for another six months and a brutal regime firmly in control, the opposition in this impoverished Buddhist country acknowledge democracy is years away.

Members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy continue to call for her release and that of thousands of other prisoners. But her arrest has paralyzed the organization and no fresh voices have emerged to challenge the authorities.

Win Naingbut, a vocal critic of the regime, says Suu Kyi's people "have accepted as fact that there is nothing they can do to change the country."

"They don't have any answers to the guns," he says.

The fate of the widowed mother of two reflects the declining state of the nation, where skyrocketing fuel prices, a plunging currency and rising debt have further impoverished many families this year.

The sacking last year of Prime Minister Gen. Khin Nyunt and the dismantling of his military intelligence unit have fostered an unpredictable political climate. Opponents seem a little more emboldened to speak out, people listen to the Voice of America and surf the Internet sites of exiled groups, and newspapers occasionally air touchy issues. But political debate is banned, and the leadership appears increasingly xenophobic, uncompromising and out of touch.

The regime has acted impervious to outside criticism ever since it seized power to abort Suu Kyi's landslide election victory in 1990. But it has turned its back on the international community even more firmly since Gen. Than Shwe, a career military man in his 70s, ousted the pragmatic Khin Nyunt.

Myanmar had been in line for a prestige boost next year — the rotating chairmanship of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But in July, after the United States and European Union threatened to boycott ASEAN unless the regime compromised over Suu Kyi, Myanmar announced it would forgo the chairmanship.

If it has won any appreciation abroad, it is for having reduced the land cultivated for opium by 80 percent over the past nine years. But Myanmar is still a major source of amphetamines and the world's largest producer of illicit opium after Afghanistan. Some border regions are largely controlled by ethnic armies that have ended long-standing rebellions against the government but have kept their arms and narcotics turf.

The cash-strapped government, meanwhile, has embarked on a massive building spree, constructing hundreds of dams, bridges and roads. In November it abruptly announced it was moving the capital from Yangon, the former Rangoon, to a remote outpost 250 miles away in Pyinmana.

The reasons are unclear. Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they had heard reports the junta was afraid of a U.S. invasion, and that the timing of the move was chosen by astrology. They said they were given a fax number for further inquiries about the new capital, but it didn't work.

"The Burmese are retreating from the outside world," said Josef Silverstein, a longtime U.S. scholar of Myanmar affairs. "They are isolating themselves in a bunker mentality."

Myanmar, called Burma until the junta renamed it, was once one of Asia's richest nations, but it was a secretive place on the economic downslide even before the generals took over.

Today on the crowded streets of Yangon, there is little evidence of dictatorship. Sugar cane vendors compete for space with hawkers of fake Rolex watches. Monks in red robes seek donations and fortunetellers do brisk business, advertising their services with signs featuring a big yellow hand.

The skyline is a mishmash of neglect and promise, with faded apartment buildings alongside flashy billboards advertising designer handbags. The streets are clogged with 1970s Japanese cars and occasional green World-War-II-era buses. The one train line, more popular as gas prices have risen nine-fold, weaves through the city with hundreds of passengers hanging from doors and windows.

Signs of grinding poverty emerge as the train heads into villages of thatched-roof huts, muddy lanes and hollow-eyed children.

In a village 20 miles outside Yangon, hundreds of children were gobbling up bowls of rice porridge distributed free by a store owner. In the next village, people complained about having no jobs and no money for school fees.

"We're living hand to mouth here," said a vegetable seller, refusing to give her name for fear of retaliation. "Prices are up so there is less profit, more struggle."

The United Nations says the dire situation is compounded by some of the highest rates of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV in Southeast Asia. Top government officials do not seem to recognize how "precarious life is for the average citizen," says Charles Petrie, the U.N. Resident Coordinator in Myanmar.

"I don't think there is a humanitarian crisis today but there are a number of humanitarian emergencies," Petrie said. "It's moving to a crisis because people are having a harder and harder time surviving."

The aging military leaders paint a rosier picture. Using the New Light of Myanmar, a state-run daily, they present a world where growth will be 12.5 percent in 2005 — not the 4.5 percent estimated by the International Monetary Fund — and rural living standards are improving dramatically.

Democracy is coming, they say, pointing to their constitution-writing convention which resumed this month. Western critics call it a sham. The dictatorship says it will lead to elections but refuses to set a timetable.

"External and internal elements are trying to derail the national convention process at a time when it is going smoothly and successfully," Lt. Gen. Thein Sein, the chairman of the national convention convening committee, warned the 1,074 delegates. "Be aware of subversives."

Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press


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