The night before I am due to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, I take a battered taxi to the ancient Shwedagon Pagoda where it all began. It was here on an August morning in 1988 that the daughter of General Aung San, Burma’s independence hero, gave her first big speech, an address that was to plunge her into the cauldron of Burmese politics.
Although she was naturally reserved and the crowd was extraordinarily large – anything between 300,000 and 1m people – she spoke without apparent fear. Behind her was a portrait of her father, the Bogyoke, or “big leader”, assassinated at the age of 32, only months before his dream of Burmese independence was realised.
“Reverend monks and people,” Suu Kyi, then 43, began, asking for a minute’s silence for the 3,000 democracy protesters gunned down or hacked to death in that momentous month of revolution and suppression. “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that is going on,” she said, launching what she called “the second struggle for national independence”. Although she sought reconciliation over conflict, the underlying message was clear. Her father had liberated Burma from the British. She would help liberate it from Burma’s own generals.
Suu Kyi had returned home not to participate in politics but to attend to her dying mother. She had left Burma as a 14-year-old girl when her mother had taken up an ambassadorship in New Delhi. After India, Suu Kyi spent much of the next 30 years in England, with long spells in Bhutan and the US, returning to Burma only for holidays. But she had never forgotten her birthplace and had warned Michael Aris, her academic husband, that the day might come when she would have to respond to her people’s call.
That moment arrived one quiet evening in Oxford when she received a phone call explaining that her mother had suffered a stroke. “She put the phone down and at once started to pack,” Aris would later write. “I had a premonition that our lives would change for ever.”
Two days later, Suu Kyi found herself in Rangoon General Hospital, where her mother was being treated. The hospital was in turmoil. It was there that most of the injured democracy protesters were being taken. Quite unwittingly, Suu Kyi had landed in the blood-stained epicentre of the 1988 uprising. When Ne Win, the numerologist and xenophobe who had ruled Burma since a 1962 coup, announced he was stepping down, Suu Kyi felt the tug of history.
Less than a month later, hundreds of thousands of people streamed towards the twinkling dome of Shwedagon to hear what the beautiful daughter of their assassinated national hero had to say.
In my short time in Rangoon – renamed Yangon by the generals who also renamed the country Myanmar – I have already caught several tantalising glimpses of this mountain of gold, a fantastical ice-cream-cone-shaped presence peeking through the vegetation and crumbling colonial architecture. Rudyard Kipling famously wrote of it: “A golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon . . . The golden dome said, ‘This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.’”
Up close, Shwedagon is even more magical than from afar. At dusk, everything, save the shocking blue of the night sky, is white and gold. One approaches the main gilded zedi, magnificent at 322ft, via dozens of other lesser shrines and stupas (domes). The sound of temple gongs reverberates in the air as worshippers bow their heads in silent meditation.
A shaven-headed monk in red robes and with a twinkle in his eye approaches. He has warm words for Gordon Brown, the staunch supporter of Burmese sanctions whom he evidently believes is still Britain’s prime minister. When I ask what he thinks of Suu Kyi, he whispers something I have heard a dozen times in the last few hours. “Everyone loves the Lady,” he says. “The Lady is very brave.”
The next morning I prepare for my meeting with the Lady, as she is universally known, in a state of some anxiety. Foreign journalists are usually barred from entering Burma. Those that get in know that to meet Suu Kyi is to court trouble. I have been warned that I am likely to be followed after leaving the National League for Democracy headquarters where the interview is to take place. A Time photographer who recently took cover pictures of Suu Kyi describes in an online video being caught in a two-hour, 90-mile-per-hour car chase, though how he managed to find a taxi among Rangoon’s decrepit fleet capable of travelling at that speed I cannot imagine.
My main concern is to get a written transcript of the interview out of the country before it can be confiscated. In my pack I place two tape recorders – one to be hidden in my sock after the interview – a couple of caps and some dark glasses to hide my face. I feel faintly ridiculous.
When the taxi driver pulls up in front of what looks like a dilapidated shack, I think he has taken me to the wrong place. It is not until I spot “National League for Democracy” painted uncertainly above the door frame that I realise we have arrived at the fragile heart of Burma’s freedom movement. I rush, head down, past a gaggle of men loitering on the steps.
There is no security and I find myself in a long room lined on both sides with benches. Dozens of people are sitting chatting in hushed voices. The walls are lined with black-and-white pictures of Bogyoke Aung Sang and others whom I take to be his fellow Thirty Comrades, the liberation heroes trained by the Japanese to help drive the British out. I realise, too late, that someone has sneaked in from outside and surreptitiously taken my photograph.
Eventually, I am ushered up some grubby, narrow stairs to a tiny waiting area. The blue paint on the walls and ceiling is peeling and there is a press of supporters waiting expectantly outside a flimsy wooden door. Behind it, I am told – though I can yet hardly believe it – sits the Lady, like a Buddha in some secret alcove in Shwedagon. The door opens a crack and I am asked to enter. Almost before I realise it, Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world’s most famous women, is standing before me.
“I am sorry. I am so sorry,” she is saying. It takes me some time to understand that she is apologising for keeping me waiting. We sit down in her tiny office, just a few feet apart.
She is wearing a purple sarong, a pink, delicately patterned silk blouse, and jasmine blossom in her hair. The first thing I notice is the intensity of her gaze. She has aged a little during her latest seven-year spell of house arrest from which she was released two months ago. But she could easily be 15 years younger than her actual age. Incredibly, the woman whose image dazzled the world when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 is 65.
Once I have caught my breath, I begin by asking how different freedom is from house arrest. “Mentally and emotionally, no different at all. I think sometimes if you are alone, you are freer because your time is your own,” she says, laughing at the faint absurdity. “In one sense, it is not at all your own because you are under house arrest and you can’t get out. But because, I suppose, by nature I am not such a gadabout, I didn’t feel such a burden.”
There is much here of the woman the world has come to admire. There is her understatement and the merest hint of playfulness, a delicate counterpoint to the brutish regime she is battling. There is the voice. Every word is enunciated, governess-style, every consonant – especially the “w” in “what” or “where” – forcefully aspirated. Then there is her use of “gadabout”, a word from another era, one in which she was the somewhat proper wife of an Oxford academic, the mother of two boys and a writer.
“Probably it’s to do with one’s own character,” she says of how she dealt with loneliness. She lived according to a strict routine, so that, at weekends, she could reward herself with “free time” to do as she pleased. “Ha,” she says triumphantly, revelling in the psychological trick she played on herself and on the generals who sought to crush her spirit. “I think, if you have enough inner resources, then you can live in isolation for long periods of time and not feel diminished by it.”
As well as listening incessantly to the BBC, she practised the piano, studied Japanese and meditated. She also discovered Tennyson. “Maybe it is something to do with age, but I have become fonder of poetry than of prose. I have discovered some rather beautiful bits by Tennyson. I used to think he was an old fuddy-duddy, but it’s not quite like that. Some of the poems from The Princess are quite beautiful.”
Not long after her release, she was reunited with her younger son, Kim, now 33, whom she had not seen for 10 years. “Oh, it was lovely, it was lovely,” she says. “Because we felt as close to each other as we always have. And that was very nice. I think I would have been very sad if we had become very distant from each other.” Of the puppy he bought her, a mongrel, she enthuses: “He gave me a dog, a very nice little dog, but I am afraid the vet says it is going to grow to be very large. It is going to take up too much room on my bed.”
Suu Kyi’s release made international headlines, though conveniently for the generals it came just a week after phoney elections in which her National League for Democracy had refused to stand. Since then, things have gone disappointingly quiet.
“Actually a lot of things have been happening, which people perhaps from the outside world have not noticed,” she says. “The very day after I was released I said I would like to build up a network, a people’s network for democratisation, and that has really taken off. I have discovered that there are many, many little groups all over the place, all doing their own thing. And now they have started linking up. We are beginning to find strength in numbers.”
The government, she says, would like to limit political activity to the recently elected national assemblies dominated by its own cronies. “So we have to work from outside the assemblies and this is what our network is going to try to do.”
Some of her supporters were frustrated at her refusal to stand in November’s election, farcical though the exercise was. Has that not frozen her organisation out of the political process?
Suu Kyi will have none of it. “People keep talking about these elections,” she says with some exasperation, adding that the 2008 referendum on the constitution – endorsed by a fictional 92 per cent of the population – was the more important event. “After all, an election is for five years. A constitution is supposed to be practically for ever.”
Not participating in the military’s so-called “discipline-flourishing democracy” does not mean an end to opposition politics. When eastern and central Europe was communist, “it was like an iced-up pond,” she says, quoting the historian Timothy Garton Ash. “But life was going on beneath the surface.”
Still, I press, would not her father have viewed her tactics as too pure and principled? In his quest for national independence, he was not averse to trickery, even collaborating with the Japanese before switching back to support the British at the end of the war. He “reneged” on both, I say, a clumsy choice of word that I am immediately made to pay for. A cloud crosses Suu Kyi’s face. “He didn’t renege on any deal with the British. He didn’t renege on any deal with the Japanese either,” she scolds. “I think you could say it was the other way around. The Japanese reneged on the deal with the Burmese. They promised to give independence to Burma, and they did not.”
I rephrase my question, saying he was prepared to be “strategic” and to make uncomfortable bedfellows. “Oh, we are prepared to be very strategic, too,” she says, a mischievous, almost girlish, smile returning to her face. “But you have to realise the situation is totally different. After all, my father was fighting against foreign enemies. We are trying to struggle against people of our own race. What we are trying to do is to change the political culture of Burma, which is a lot more difficult.”
Burma is indeed a world apart. A backwater in colonial times and isolated by sanctions in modern ones, it is said to feel like the Thailand of 50 years ago. For me, there is much of the India I first encountered in the 1980s: men on the street typing up official letters on ancient typewriters; people making calls from rigged-up street-side telephones; and rudimentary pavement tea shops with plastic chairs and tables. Most people still wear colourful sarongs, or longyi. Many women daub their faces with what looks like yellow war paint, a paste made from thanaka tree bark that gives them an almost ghostly appearance. There is little obvious military presence on the streets, partly because the generals, like so many Burmese kings before them, have established an entirely new capital, Naypyidaw, 200 miles north of Rangoon.
There is also something of North Korea in the Burma of the generals. That morning, the lead story in The New Light of Myanmar was: “Steel truss installed at Ayeyawady Bridge (Pakokku)”, an item that actually turned to page eight. Then there are the slogans, dutifully printed by the newspapers in bold type. “Anarchy begets anarchy, not democracy”, “VOA, BBC – sowing hatred among the people”, and “We oppose unrest and violence”, immediately followed by my personal favourite, “Wipe out those inciting unrest and violence”.
I wonder how Suu Kyi can maintain affection for a military warped beyond recognition from her father’s ideal. “I was brought up to be fond of the military, to believe that everybody in military uniform was, in some way or other, my father’s son. This is not something that you can just get rid of. It stays with you,” she says.
Many of the founding members of her National League for Democracy were former generals. “It is a little bit more subtle than overthrowing the military dictatorship,” she says.
It is easier for her, she admits, to maintain warmer feelings for the military since she, unlike many of her political compatriots, was never tortured or left to rot in one of Burma’s jails (though she did go on hunger strike when she was first put under house arrest in 1989 to demand that she, too, be sent to prison). Since her recent release, she has reiterated her call for dialogue. As yet, there has been no response from the generals. “I have not put out feelers because we are not quite sure who is supposed to be in control.”
As she implies, Burma’s political system is in a state of some flux. The newly elected assembly is due to meet this Monday to elect a new head of government. Than Shwe, now 77, commander-in-chief of the Burmese army since 1992, is expected gradually to fade into retirement, although some suspect he will continue to scheme from behind the khaki curtain. The changing picture has led some of Burma’s opposition to sniff an opportunity. If the military, now headed by a clutch of younger generals after several enforced retirements, begins to vie for power with newly constituted assemblies, there may be some political wriggle room.
Suu Kyi is sceptical. “Sometimes I think that a parody of democracy could be more dangerous than a blatant dictatorship, because that gives people an opportunity to avoid doing anything about it.”
The west tends to view Burma through the prism of Suu Kyi’s democracy movement. But an equally serious – some would say even graver – crisis is the never-ending civil war between the Burmese army and multiple ethnic minority groups, mainly living in the border regions. On-again, off-again fighting with the Karen, Kachin, Wa, Shan and others has rumbled on for 60 years with the loss of perhaps 1m lives. That is not something that a return to democracy would easily solve, although some minorities may be more disposed to be part of a democratic nation than a military-led one bent on their absolute submission.
Suu Kyi’s father tried to address the issue in the little Shan town of Panglong where a conference was held in 1947. There, the Shan, Chin and Kachin, but not the other ethnic groups, agreed to be part of the republic in return for significant autonomy. Suu Kyi has pledged to convene a second Panglong, launching a fresh attempt at agreement with ethnic minorities, some of whose leaders view her less as a champion of democracy than as a representative of Burmese nationalism.
“There is as yet no spirit of union,” she concedes. “There is not the feeling among the ethnic nationalities – and I include the Burmese, we just happen to be the biggest one – that we all belong together.”
Many have been sceptical of her ability even to convene such a conference given the restrictions on her activities, explicit or implicit, imposed by the military. She denies that there were any conditions on her release. Why, then, has she not left Rangoon? “I’ve got so much work here. How would I be talking to you if I were traipsing around all of Burma?” she replies somewhat unconvincingly.
Panglong 2, she says, can be conducted in cyberspace, though she is only due to be granted an internet connection by the authorities on the day I interview her. “If we are not going to be able to all meet together in one place physically, we can communicate with each other using all the IT developments of the 21st century,” she says.
On another strategic issue, I ask about sanctions. Thant Myint-U, an author and grandson of U Thant, former secretary-general of the United Nations, has written eloquently against them. It was Ne Win who hung the Do Not Disturb sign on Burma’s door, he writes. “Much more than any other part of Burmese society, the army will weather another 40 years of isolation just fine.”
When it comes to tourism, Suu Kyi has softened. Her party will shortly come out with a white paper endorsing individual tourists who are careful not to spend money that goes directly to the generals. “I think we are going to encourage individual tourism, encourage tourists to stay in certain kinds of hotels, ethical tourism if you like,” she says.
But on broader economic sanctions, she is far more cautious. These, after all, remain her main bargaining chip. “Some people are using the sanctions issue as a political stick to beat the movement for democracy,” she says. “It is not because sanctions are really hurting the people,” she adds, saying years of mismanagement by an economically illiterate junta are to blame. Even so, she has ordered a review of the sanctions issue. Eventually, she concedes, this might result in “modifications” to her party’s stance.
In 1946, in a speech in which he stressed the responsibility of all Burmese to press for independence, her father said: “I am a person who is very popular with the public. But I am neither a god, wizard or magician.” I wonder whether Suu Kyi also feels the burden of too much expectation, or even worries she might be drawing the sting of rebellion from a populace placing unrealistic faith in her ability to bring change. There is a nod of recognition.
“I have to confess that there seems to be more support for me now than ever before,” she begins. “But, at the same time, I think there seems to be a greater sense of responsibility among my supporters. They seem to understand that they have to do more, that I have a role to play and so do they.” She continues: “When people ask me, ‘Do you want to be the next president of Burma?’, I say no. The object of this exercise is that you have president after president after president.”
Burma seems no nearer that goal than it was nearly 23 years ago when she first spoke at the Shwedagon Pagoda, I say. In a sense the generals are stronger than ever. They receive billions of dollars from natural gas sold to Thailand and China and have just completed a devious constitutional and electoral manoeuvre aimed at giving their rule a democratic façade.
Given the sacrifices she has made – separation from her two sons, and from her husband, who died of cancer in 1999 – I find her initial response shocking: “I don’t think we have moved anywhere yet.” Then she elaborates. “What I would like the world to realise is that the election and my release do not mean we have reached some kind of turning point. I was released because my term was up.”
Hope is not extinguished. “Because of a change of attitude of the people of Burma – especially the young people – I think we will move quicker towards change. I am not saying that the endgame is in sight or anything like that. But I am saying the movement is gaining momentum.”
Wasn’t the peak of rebellion in 1988, followed by a much smaller, monk-led uprising in 2007, I ask? No, she says. Now people are even more active and courageous. “They are more willing to be involved. These link-ups help. You feel very isolated if somebody is beating you up” – the phrase sounds strange on her lips – “and nobody knows anything about it. But if the police beat you up and you can get on to the media immediately and people start shouting about you and for you, then you are empowered.”
As the clock ticks past midday, I steer the conversation back to its start. Does she not feel regret for years she has missed, for the world outside her prison-cell-home and the one outside her prison-cell Burma? “No. I miss seeing my friends, obviously,” she says decisively. “But even with regard to my friends, I have very happy memories. If you have happy memories, I think you can live in isolation and not feel that you’ve missed too much.”
I stand up to leave. “Thank you so much for coming,” she says, quite as if I have just popped round for a cup of tea. We discuss my elaborate, entirely farcical, plan to avoid the secret police, which involves a change of caps and a switch of taxis. “You’ll find your pinstripe suit is rather noticeable,” she teases. “I don’t know why they do it. It must be terribly exhausting and terribly boring.”
She bids farewell with the story of an Englishman who was due to travel to Burma some years ago. “He went to his local pub as usual and said he was going to visit Burma on holiday. And one of his mates said: ‘Should you be going? That lady with the unpronounceable name said you must not go.’ I was very touched. He couldn’t pronounce my name, but he’d obviously taken my message to heart.” And then she adds, quite matter-of-factly, as though the past 23 years have been a small inconvenience: “I thought, next time I am able to go to England, I must go to that pub.”
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia managing editor