Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

Thursday, December 10, 1998 Published at 14:12 GMT

Burma's high price for freedom

[ image:  ]
Aung San Suu Kyi is for many, a living embodiment of the fight for human freedoms.

The BBC's Sue Lloyd-Roberts visited her in Burma on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Aung San Suu Kyi: "Burma has broken every measure of human rights"
It is absurd the lengths you have to go to today to meet with Burma's only democratically elected leader.

I set off from my hotel at 5.00 in the morning, advised by her friends to dress like a local which means a long skirt they call a lunghi and flip-flops, not ideal for navigating one's way through Rangoon's pot-holed roads in the dark.

The plot was to get to the house where I was due to meet her before dawn and therefore before the military intelligence officers had taken up their positions outside.

The men from MI routinely surround any of the houses which she is likely to visit but, fortunately, unlike me, they are not into pre-dawn arrivals.

All went according to plan until Aung San Suu Kyi herself arrived some five hours later.

[ image: Support: People fear reprisals]
Support: People fear reprisals
"Oh no," she said, looking at the way I had tied my lunghi which is a length of cloth sewn together and tied at the waist. "That's not the way to do it." She proceeded to strip me down and start again - it was not the first time I was to be stripped that day.

She has had a terrible year.

Hundreds more supporters of her National League for Democracy party have been arrested. Her attempts to leave Rangoon during the summer and visit the families of political prisoners outside the city were thwarted by the military who, at one point, physically lifted the car she was travelling in by a fork lift truck - and pointed it back in the direction she had come from.

[ image: Protest: Days in a car trying to leave the capital]
Protest: Days in a car trying to leave the capital
There are army checkpoints along the street leading to her home and her phone has been cut off.

Does this mean the opposition in Burma is finished, I asked her.

"Certainly not," she said. "I mean if we did not have the support of the people, they would not have to keep on arresting us, would they?

"If we were no threat they would leave us alone."

I am not a particularly large person but alongside Aung San Suu Kyi, I feel huge. It never ceases to amaze me when I meet her how much fight and determination can be contained in this tiny, doll like figure.

She expresses frustration with the people of Burma for failing to show their discontent.

[ image: Rangoon: 10 years ago scenes were different]
Rangoon: 10 years ago scenes were different
Those who dare, tell you, while looking over their shoulder, that they love the woman they call "The Lady" but they are afraid.

There have been too many arrests and people's strength has been sapped by economic hardship.

Ten years of waiting

It has been ten years since the last mass anti government demonstration in Burma during which thousands were killed.

Does she not expect too much from the people, given the risks?

"We all have to pay a high price for freedom", she said.

[ image: Crackdown: Military crushed protests]
Crackdown: Military crushed protests
And, I ask, I suppose you with your self imposed exile from your family in England for the past ten years are the best example of this kind of sacrifice?

"I would not be so presumptuous as to call it sacrifice," she almost snaps back.

"I am doing this because I want to. I believe in what I am doing."

But she looks painfully vulnerable and isolated and her situation looks increasingly hopeless. I have this sudden vision of her, in thirty years time, still living in her home on the edge of Lake Inya, even more isolated from her friends and family, the generals are still in charge and her only visitors are passing journalists and biographers.

Will it all have been worth it? Will she ever inherit Burma?

But that, I was told by one of her friends, is to miss the point. On this, the eve of the UN Declaration on Human Rights, Aung San Suu Kyi is the living symbol of the spirit of that worthy declaration.

She may not expect to inherit Burma. But if she, as an individual, has to spend 30 or 40 years of her life standing up to one of the most brutal regimes we have ever seen - that in itself will be no mean epitaph.

[ image: Crackdown: Thousands died]
Crackdown: Thousands died
But that is to take a very pessimistic view of Burma.

I am told by a Burmese monk that what we are seeing is a battle between good and evil and good is bound to triumph.

A general of one of the rebel armies reminds me that a look back at history proves that military regimes always fall in the end.

The underground leaders in Rangoon tell me that it will take time to restore democracy and they refer to their five and ten year prison sentences as necessary steps in this process.


After I have left Suu Kyi, I am arrested, strip searched and deported from the country.

In the car on the way to the airport my guard says in a loud voice: "You have done a terrible thing, visiting this evil woman". But he is speaking for the benefit of the driver.

Under his breath, he mumbles, "I am so sorry, I am so sorry".

Maybe there is hope.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia

Relevant Stories

05 Aug 98 | Burma
The men in uniform

29 Jul 98 | Asia-Pacific
Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi

Internet Links

BBC News Online special report: Burma Ten Years On

Free Burma

Burmese Government

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

Life and death in Orissa

A return to Chechnya

Belgrade Wonderland

Shame in a biblical land

Zambia's amazing potato cure

Whistling Turks

In the face of protest

Spinning the war Russian style

Gore's battle for nomination

Fighting for gay rights in Zimbabwe

A sacking and a coup

Feelings run high in post-war Kosovo