Today Aung San Suu Kyi, the face of democracy in authoritarian Burma, becomes an honorary Canadian citizen.
"It's extremely hard to have any communication with her," says Justin Wintle, London-based author of Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi. "We've been trying to reach her for some time without success."
Her cousin, Seine Win, prime minister of the exiled National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, will be present at the ceremony in Ottawa this afternoon. But Wintle adds, the honour comes at a time when Suu Kyi's international connections are under scrutiny.
The military junta that rules Burma, which it calls Myanmar, has planned a referendum Saturday on a new constitution that bars people who have been married to foreigners from running for office - a blow apparently aimed at Suu Kyi, the widow of a British academic.
Through more than a decade of house arrest, harassment and vilification she remains the opponent the generals fear most: a bitter irony underscored by her isolation and increasingly frail appearance.
The lowest point of her captivity was the death of her husband Michael Aris, who was refused permission to see her when he was fatally ill in 1999. Fearing she would be exiled, she refused the junta's offer to visit him, hoping to someday resume her role as leader of the National League for Democracy.
"In the beginning, she never committed herself to so many years under house arrest in those conditions," says Wintle. "But she has become a devout Buddhist, and Buddha himself grew up in luxury - but once on a spiritual mission left his family for the common good."
The daughter of Burma Independence Army commander Aung San, Suu Kyi was an unlikely political heroine who studied at Oxford, married at 27 and had two children. She wrote a book on her father's career, and studied for an advanced degree.
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But when her mother had a severe stroke in Rangoon in 1988, her life changed dramatically. Returning to care for her in the family's lakeside home, she was caught up in a revolt against military dictator Ne Win.
Witnessing the junta's brutality, she began a campaign to restore democracy. A firebrand speaker who roused the country and defied the junta, she became the head of a new pro-democratic political party.
With Suu Kyi under house arrest, her party won a stunning victory in a 1990 election that should have put her in power: but the junta refused to recognize the results.
The following year, still detained, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, accepted by sons Alexander and Kim.
Now world famous - and known by her devoted supporters as The Lady - Suu Kyi was released by the generals in 1995, but kept under close surveillance. She was rearrested in 2000, released again in 2002, and after a year of freedom seized again and jailed.
Last year, she was permitted to leave her home under guard and meet with UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who urged the junta to begin a process of national reconciliation and hold talks with her. His message was ignored.
Photos of 62-year-old Suu Kyi with Gambari showed her looking wan, fuelling rumours her health was declining. But for millions of Burmese, she remains a shining hope for freedom in their lifetime.
In spite of the constitutional changes proposed in this week's referendum, Suu Kyi was reportedly included in the official voters' list. But the generals show no sign of releasing her.
"They don't understand dialogue," she told reporters during a brief period of freedom in 1999. "They think it is some sort of competition where one side loses and the other wins, and perhaps they are not so confident they will be able to win."
© 2008 The Toronto Sun