The Magazine

The Rangoon Squad

From the June 16, 2003 issue: Burma's junta "disappears" the country's leading democrat.

Jun 16, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 39 • By RENA PEDERSON
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IN THE TRADEMARK MANNER of thugocracies, Burma's military government, seeking to silence its critics, sent a mob to attack the motorcade of longtime democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi on the night of Friday, May 30, as she traveled to a speaking engagement in the north of the country. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was assaulted and taken to an undisclosed location.

The government would say only that she had been placed in "protective custody" and that she had not been injured. But reports persisted that Suu Kyi had suffered a severe blow to the head and possibly a broken arm. Inside Burma, it was said that hundreds of her supporters had been murdered; international news agencies reported at least 70 killed and 50 injured. At least 18 people were believed detained.

"The problem with getting an accurate story about what happened is that everyone who could speak the truth in Burma is under arrest," said one democracy advocate in Washington. The government controls the only two newspapers and TV stations, and the leading journalist is in prison. One in four citizens reportedly spies for the government, so everyone is guarded about what is said in public.

Nevertheless, clandestine sources inside Burma that have proved reliable in the past report that hundreds of armed men attacked the motorcade, some disguised as Buddhist monks. Some were convicts released at the government's behest. They beat Suu Kyi's supporters with bamboo clubs three feet long and riddled her car with bullets. The window was shattered, and either a rock or a brick was thrown at Suu Kyi's head while she was seated in the car. Several students reportedly tried to shield her with their bodies, but they were beaten severely, and she was dragged away bleeding. According to this account, she was taken to a military hospital for stitches and then transferred to Yemon military camp about 25 miles from Rangoon.

Plainly, Suu Kyi, who is 57 and weighs about 100 pounds, faces long odds--though not for the first time. Since 1988, she has been standing up to one of the most brutal regimes in the world. In the process, she has become the photogenic symbol of democracy in Asia. In 1990, her party, the National League for Democracy, won 80 percent of the vote in elections the junta mistakenly had thought they could control. Instead of seating the winners in parliament, the generals threw many NLD leaders in jail and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remained for most of the ensuing 13 years.

In this country, few people know her name, much less how to pronounce it (awn sawn soo chee). But her story has the sweep and drama of "Gone With The Wind." Her father, General Aung San, was a leader of the democracy movement in Burma after World War II and was expected to become the first president after Great Britain relinquished control. He was assassinated when his daughter was only 2. His wife, a wartime nurse, went on to become ambassador to India.

Suu Kyi was educated at Oxford and married a fellow student, who became a professor of Tibetan studies. She lived quietly in England as a wife and mother of two boys until her own mother suffered a stroke in 1988, and she returned to Burma to care for her. In riots that year, soldiers shot and killed more student demonstrators than would die in 1989 at Tiananmen Square. Suu Kyi was entreated to stay and help lead the democracy effort, which she did, at great personal sacrifice. She has seen her sons only sporadically since. And four years ago, as her husband was dying of cancer, the junta refused to grant him a visa to visit her.

The international response to her rearrest has been near unanimous condemnation. In the midst of peace negotiations in the Middle East, President Bush expressed his deep concern and called for the immediate release of Suu Kyi and her supporters, as did United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. The most tepid responses came from Burma's Southeast Asian neighbors, who have their own concerns about stability. They asked for an explanation of Suu Kyi's detention, but would not demand her release. Japan, the leading investor in Burma, said the situation was not "good" and dialogue was needed for a democratic solution.

It will be up to the United States to increase pressure on the Burmese generals, who apparently thought they could decapitate their opposition while the world was concentrating on the Middle East. The Bush administration must back up its words with actions. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Rep. Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, moved to toughen existing sanctions on Thursday. They will need help. As the Boston Globe pointed out, President Bush could issue an executive order that would accomplish the same thing.