Page last updated at 15:24 GMT, Thursday, 27 September 2007 16:24 UK

Burma's silent symbol of hope

By Penny Spiller
BBC News

When Aung San Suu Kyi emerged briefly from house arrest for the first time in four years last Saturday, it sent a powerful message to the Burmese people.

Protest supporter wears a t-shirt of Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon - 25/09/07
Aung San Suu Kyi is a figure of hope for many Burmese

The fact that the military leadership had allowed the country's most important symbol of peaceful resistance to pray with monks marching in support of democracy arguably strengthened the campaign.

Having kept her hidden away from the world for more than 11 of the past 18 years, Burmese watchers say they are surprised the government allowed her to appear at the gates of her Rangoon home at all.

But Burma's military leaders seem unlikely to allow a repeat of this scene any time soon.

Since Saturday, security has been tightened around her house, and protesters who have attempted to march to her gates have been turned away.

There have also been rumours that Aung San Suu Kyi has been moved to the notorious Insein prison, although these remain unconfirmed.

'Icon of democracy'

Just catching a glimpse of Ms Suu Kyi at her gates last Saturday would have been a huge boost to people in the country, according to Myint Swe of the BBC's Burmese Service.

"She is considered an icon of democracy in Burma and this is the first time they have seen her for four years. It shows she is alive and well," he said.

Aung San Suu Kyi greeting protesting monks outside her home on 22 September 2007.

The daughter of Burmese independence hero General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi became involved in the country's politics during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising that was brutally suppressed by the junta.

She led the National League for Democracy Party (NLD) in elections in 1990.

Although her party won by a landslide, she was by that point under arrest and the election result was never recognised by the military.

She has spent large parts of her detention in solitary confinement, and has been forced to make huge personal sacrifices.

She even decided against visiting her dying husband in the UK for fear she would be prevented from returning to Burma.

Her determination to dedicate her life to the Burmese cause has only increased her standing internationally - she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 - and added to the junta's nervousness about her.

Obvious leader

Anna Roberts, of Burma Campaign UK, says the fact that monks were allowed through the roadblocks to Ms Suu Kyi's house last Saturday suggests the junta were caught off-guard by the protests.

"I don't think the regime knew how to react. They have been taken by surprise in terms of the scale of the protests and international attention on the protests. Given the status of the monks in Burma and the fact that the world is watching, they may have thought it might calm things," she said.

Can she compromise with the military, and can they compromise with her?
Kerry Brown, Chatham House's Asia Programme
"But it's a very important gesture, and I think it has galvanised support for the protests."

Kerry Brown, of Chatham House's Asia Programme, agrees the military may have slipped up by thinking that allowing Ms Suu Kyi to emerge from her home might calm the situation.

But he believes it is Burma's dire economic situation, rather than its politics, that has been the main spur for the huge numbers of protesters out on the streets this week.

The protests were originally sparked in August by a sudden hike in fuel prices, making travel prohibitive for large numbers of the population.

Whatever the reasons for the protests, it is clear that Aung San Suu Kyi could play a crucial role in their aftermath.

If the regime falls, she is the obvious person to lead the country, Kerry Brown believes.

But fundamental questions remain.

"Is she able to deliver a cohesive government after so many years kept in isolation?" he said. "Can she compromise with the military, and can they compromise with her?"

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