Independence Day

After two decades under house arrest, peace activist Aung San Suu Kyi is free, and her quiet fight for democracy begins again
Independence Day
AFP/Getty Images

When, on the evening of Nov. 13, Aung San Suu Kyi suddenly appeared from behind the red iron bars surrounding her house, her lonely prison for most of the past two decades, her ecstatic supporters erupted into cheers; many were reduced to tears. Thousands had rushed to Suu Kyi’s crumbling white villa on Rangoon’s Inya Lake after security forces began taking apart the compound’s barbed-wire barricades: a clear signal the world’s most famous political prisoner would finally be freed from house arrest.

The crowd’s size, enthusiasm, and the strong youth element suggest “the Lady,” as she is known in Burma, had emerged from captivity with her popularity and moral authority intact. “We haven’t seen each other for so long,” Suu Kyi, dressed in a purple longyi, a Burmese sarong, told supporters, her grace unbroken. “We have a lot to do.”

If this were Hollywood, Burma’s democratic icon would brush past Than Shwe, the country’s vicious and reclusive top general, and take the mantle of a free Rangoon. Alas, “this was not a Mandela moment, where you set the country on a path to multi-party governance and a transition of power,” says Jared Genser, Suu Kyi’s Washington-based international lawyer. “At best,” he adds, Suu Kyi’s release, which came just in time for her to miss the country’s November elections, was a “single step forward on the proverbial 1,000-mile journey.”

The slight, 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate is positioning her political movement as an active opposition to the military leadership, and calling for a non-violent revolution. When pressed, she carefully defines her goal as “significant,” though not necessarily dramatic, change. “Drama,” she explains, “isn’t always for the best.” Though conciliatory in tone, the steely daughter of independence hero Aung San has flatly refused the junta’s demands that she not leave Rangoon, or give speeches. She knows what she risks, and accepts that she may be re-imprisoned. The regime has released her before, only to lock her up again: her popularity and their fears always rise in step. She didn’t “go through hell” to remain silent now, says Josef Silverstein, a Burma specialist and professor emeritus at Rutgers University.

The struggle for democracy, which she joined in 1988 on a visit to Rangoon to care for her dying mother, has cost her dearly. She was first put under house arrest in 1989—a year before her National League for Democracy party took 82 per cent of seats in elections—and has spent 15 of the past 21 years locked up. She hasn’t lived with her sons, now in their 30s, since they were 15 and 11, and in 1999, she turned down the junta’s invitation to visit her dying husband, the scholar Michael Aris, at Oxford. If she left Burma, she knew they’d never let her return. Asked once if she thought her story had the makings of a Greek tragedy, she responded: “Don’t be silly. I don’t go in for melodrama.”