As Aung San Suu Kyi prepares to celebrate her 65th
birthday tomorrow, confined in the house in which she has spent most of
the past two decades, a confidante of the Burmese opposition leader has
made a simple but passionate appeal to those in the West to use their
freedom to help his country achieve the same.
In a hand-written letter smuggled out of Burma and passed to The Independent,
U Win Tin writes: "I want to repeat and echo her own words - 'please
use your liberty to promote ours'. I want to add more to it. Please bring
more and more liberty to us, to our country, Burma. We are starving for it
and we are waiting for someone or some institutions or some countries to
bring it to us."
The plea from Ms Suu Kyi's friend and senior political ally, who himself spent
almost 20 years in solitary confinement, comes at a desperately difficult
time for the opponents of Burma's military junta.
Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been forced to shut
down after it decided it could not participate in an election due later this
year when she and more than 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars.
While a breakaway group of supporters has decided to contest the polls, most
independent analysts believe the election will simply further cement the
While Ms Suu Kyi has been permitted occasional meetings with diplomats and her
lawyers, she remains imprisoned within the lakeside Rangoon home once owned
and occupied by her mother.
Analysts say that in the aftermath of the 2007 democracy protests - when tens
of thousands of people took to the streets - the military authorities have
made a concerted effort to marginalise the Nobel laureate, both physically
and politically. Before the authorities had allowed the NLD and its largely
frail and ageing membership to splutter on, although hundreds of its younger
political activists, monks and dissidents were jailed. Now, it has been
prevented from operating as a political party.
Amid this, the junta has claimed the elections due to be held this year will
mark a crucial staging point in Burma's journey to full democracy. It is a
claim that has been met with derision by most independent observers.
Just yesterday, The Elders, a group of global leaders called together by
Nelson Mandela, used the occasion of Ms Suu Kyi's birthday to denounce the
planned election. "National processes in Burma have been usurped by the
military government - they do not serve the people. The elections due later
this year will not be any different," said Desmond Tutu, chairman of
Gordon Brown told The Independent last night: "The reason I wrote to both
Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela as my final two letters as Prime
Minister, was to send a message around the world that as long as [she] is
not free then we cannot talk about a free world. And as long as [Mr
Mandela's] dream of universal education and eradicating poverty is
unrealised, then there is no justice. It is our duty, whatever position we
are in, to fight for Aung San Suu Kyi to be free, and democracy to prevail."
Despite the junta's efforts to isolate her, experts say Ms Suu Kyi remains the
sole person who could perhaps unite Burma. "She remains a powerful icon
and, if she were free and there were free presidential elections tomorrow,
there's no doubt in my mind that she would win," said author Bertil
Aung Din, who also spent time in Burma's jails as a dissident and now heads
the US Campaign for Burma, was even more forceful. "The junta are not
able to remove the image of 'The Lady' from the hearts of the people. The
more the people of Burma see and suffer abuses and injustices by the
generals, the more they expect her to save their country".
Ms Suu Kyi - who rose to become leader of Burma's political opposition
following massive democracy demonstrations in 1988 that were crushed with
the loss of up to 6,000 lives - has been repeatedly jailed and detained by
the authorities. Her first imprisonment followed an election in 1990 which
the NLD won by a landslide but the military refused to acknowledge. Her
current term of detention dates from 2003.
While she is slightly built and is perhaps starting to reflect her age, those
who have met her during this time say she remains remarkably vibrant, alert
David Cameron has said that continuing to press for change in Burma will be a
key part of his foreign policy agenda. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague,
said yesterday: "Her continued detention, and that of more than 2,100
other political prisoners in Burma, contravenes international human rights
law and casts a long shadow over planned elections. I urge the military
regime to release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally."
Ms Suu Kyi's birthday will be celebrated with far more fanfare overseas than
in Burma, where it is expected that just hardcore members of her NLD will
gather. Paying their respects in person will be utterly impossible; since
last year, the road that passes the opposition leader's crumbling house has
been permanently barricaded.
Even at the age of 65, the woman inside carries with her a rare, special power
that the generals still fear.