The lady's not for turning

Doubts about Aung San Suu Kyi's political relevance can be dismissed. She remains the symbol of defi

Aung San Suu Kyi rarely receives visitors. Apart from the regular visits by her doctor and Special Branch police officers, there is only the occasional United Nations envoy, and on a rainy day in September 2007, hundreds of Buddhist monks who walked to her house chanting prayers in her honour before leading the biggest uprising in Burma since 1988.

Suu Kyi’s latest visitor came uninvited and, unwittingly, cast her from seclusion back into the center of Burma’s long drawn out political drama. An American called John William Yettaw swam across Inya Lake in Rangoon, spending two days as an unwelcome house guest with Suu Kyi. Authorities arrested Yettaw on his return journey on May 6. This bizarre incident became the pretext for the ruling military government to file charges against Suu Kyi for breaching conditions of her house arrest order, in force since 2003.

On May 14 Burmese authorities arrested the pro-democracy leader and 1991 Nobel Peace prize winner, along with her two maids. They are currently detaining the three in Rangoon’s squalid Insein prison. On May 18, she went on trial and faces a potential prison term of three to five years, even though many Burmese expected her house arrest to be extended for another year anyway. International condemnation was immediate and widespread, including from some of Burma’s southeast Asian neighbors and usual protectors.

Burmese authorities last detained Suu Kyi in Insein Prison in May 2003, after a pro-government mob attacked her motorcade in Depayin in upper Burma. Scores of Suu Kyi’s supporters were killed in what was clearly a ham-fisted attempt to murder her. After several weeks in Insein prison, authorities sent Su Kyi to her Rangoon home where she has remained in isolation for the last six years.

Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been eviscerated by government repression --offices closed, members forced to resign, many thrown in prison or forced into exile, only the old leaders, the ”uncles” allowed to speak to the outside world. Burma’s prisons hold more than 2,100 political activists, a cross section of society incarcerated as an example to deter broader dissent.

The military government continues to deny the NLD freedom to function as a normal opposition. Widespread scepticism is the attitude towards elections that are scheduled for 2010 as part of a tightly scripted sham political process - the generals’ ”Road Map to Disciplined Democracy.” But what role does ‘The Lady’, as she is popularly referred to, have in this sham process of reform designed to ensure future military rule with a civilian veil?

The question of Aung San Suu Kyi’s relevance to Burma’s political future has been clearly answered by the military government’s latest move. If the generals did not think she still embodied a challenge to their rule, they would have released her long ago. Suu Kyi’s remains the symbol of defiance to a rotten system of military rule.

The generals aren’t the only ones impatient with her principles. Lately, some diplomats, aid workers and journalists have criticized Su Kyi’s ”hard-line” approach and lack of compromise in dealing with the generals, and bemoan her support of Western sanctions. But sanctions are hardly to blame for the paranoia and xenophobia of Burma’s generals and socio-economic atrophy. Burma’s dire poverty is a direct result of four decades of military rule, political instability, and economic mismanagement. It cannot be blamed on a woman held in isolation for 14 of the past 20 years.

Su Kyi’s unflinching commitment to peaceful change and rights for all in Burma explains her popularity inside and outside the country and fuels the military’s enmity against her. The generals have proved once again Suu Kyi’s pivotal personification of freedom in Burma. The military government can go through the motions of legal proceedings, but it only shows their mendacity, and boosts her popularity. Burma’s rulers should set her free, and start learning from her example.

David Scott Mathieson is the Burma Researcher for Human Rights Watch