Following the coup, dinner was brought forward somewhat, to 5pm

Returning to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, following my fact-finding, joint EU-ACP mission to the Solomon Islands, I was amazed by the coverage my visit had been given. I have been greeted warmly by friends and colleagues and received lots of stern lectures about "being more careful in future". I do promise to try, but predicting what might happen is not easy - as I discovered when our mission coincided with a coup d'etat. News of the coup - during which the democratically elected prime minister was taken from his bed at gunpoint - reached us as we ate breakfast in our hotel. There was an eerie atmosphere as we all tried to work out what would happen next. Most of the hotel staff had obeyed the orders to stay at home. We were told not to leave the hotel, that the sale of liquor was banned, and that dinner would be at 5pm. Such logistical advice seemed strange when the situation was potentially so dangerous. The hotel felt relatively safe, but there was always a sense that anything was possible. Neil, I know, was keen that I should avoid saying anything likely to ruffle the feathers of the coup-makers. The prime minister came to see our delegation at the hotel, and certainly the sight of that small, gentle man being led in, flanked by armed militia, sent a shiver down my spine. The hotel receptionist said to me, with tears running down her cheek: "I cannot believe what I am seeing. It is his dignity, and the dignity of our country which they take away. What hope can we have now?"

I have many memories, but none more distinct than how it felt to stand among the armed rebels in their flak jackets made of tree bark and wild ginger. Some were as young as 12, clutching home-made weapons with wooden butts attached to bits of old piping; they used bullets dug out of old US Second World War arms dumps. I just smiled benignly at them, in the hope that they would concentrate on keeping their guns away from where I was standing.

Throughout the discussions after the coup, I was struck by the total absence of women. They had had no involvement with all of those who "cooked up" the coup. Women in the towns and in the rural areas told me they wanted peace, so that their kids could go to school, so that they could find medicines in their clinics, and sell produce in the markets.

This is the week of the month in which the European Parliament decamps from its new building in Brussels to its very new building in Strasbourg. There's impressive symbolism in meeting in the Rhineside capital of Alsace that was fought over by French and German armies for centuries. That's why the heads of EU member-state governments will probably continue to insist unanimously on having a peripatetic parliament, I suppose. But the time and money wasted by the monthly - some would say lunar - move is prodigious. Strasbourg, despite its stately setting, is not exactly at the hub of Europe's transport system, and the parliament building is impractical and badly designed.

That's not all: on the Thursday of last month's session, the parliament's administration coolly e-mailed all MEPs to say legionella had been found in the machine rooms - but that we shouldn't worry. Filled with something less than supreme confidence, I went for a cup of coffee with colleagues. The milk wasn't so much "off" as decomposing. Sipping our black caffeine we speculated on whether the legionella or the salmonella would get us first.

The Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, is 55 on 19 June and, as a patron of the Burma Campaign UK, I helped host a celebration of her birthday last Sunday evening at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. Our guest of honour couldn't be there. Aung San Suu Kyi continues her years of virtual house arrest in Rangoon. She smuggled out a video message, which was screened on the night.

Her enforced absence serves to increase our awareness of the tragedy that is continuing to unfold in Burma, and her voice communicates irrepressible determination to secure freedom for the people of her country. The epic struggle taking place in Burma has gone unnoticed for too long. But the world's attention is shifting. As it does, we can see, coming into sharp focus, a military dictatorship that, despite its military might, is terrified of a small, gentle woman and the people who she leads.

The regime controlling Burma is as despotic and secretive as any in the modern era. I have seen the tragic effects of its slaughter, rape and economic exploitation for myself. Every day, thousands are risking their lives, thousands are suffering in prisons, and millions are enduring desperate poverty. Exiles work hard for the day they can return home to a free land. They won't give up until this struggle is won - and it will be won. It is a matter of when, not if.

We can all help to hasten the day, with funds and campaigns to intensify the pressures on the Burmese junta. Aung San Suu Kyi has appealed for support in her crusade: "Please use your liberty to promote ours," she asks. Tyrants do tumble, people do eventually gain their liberty. Making a donation helps those working to rid Burma of tyranny.

For donations to the Burma Campaign UK, contact Yvette Mahon on 020-7281 7377

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - the matriarchs