On the evening of November 13, as she tucked a red hibiscus into her hair with a characteristic flick of the hand, the crowd roared with joy. Overwhelmed to see their symbol of hope waving from over the menacing iron spokes that have barricaded her from the world for so many years, many cried. Others proudly displayed T-shirts emblazoned with their leader's smiling face. How will Aung San Suu Kyi cope with her 'new' life of freedom? With her characteristic savoir faire, well-honed negotiating skills and commitment, of course. Arrest, incarceration and enforced 'solitude' are things that she has learnt to live with in the 22 years since her life changed irrevocably. The cause of the last round from which she emerged on Friday was perhaps the most intriguing: the strange case of the eccentric John William Yettaw who, in May 2009, swam to her crumbling home on the shores of Lake Inya and was given refuge. The incident gave the junta a convenient excuse to immediately extend Aung San Suu Kyi's incarceration.
There has been much discussion around the incident — whether Yettaw was truly odd, or whether he was a plant, a spy and so on. There has been less speculation on why Aung San Suu Kyi and her two home helpers agreed to allow him to stay. They must surely have known the repercussions of such a decision under a despotic regime where it is illegal to have a guest stay overnight without notifying the authorities. To have sent Yettaw back to an uncertain fate would have been totally out of character — Suu (as Aung San Suu Kyi is known to her family and close friends) has never been known to shun responsibility or, for that matter, an unusual experience. A long journey from the 1960s, when, as a quiet, obedient girl with a great flair for creative writing, she would come to school in the ambassadorial Mercedes, her hair in two neat plaits and just a trace of arrowroot on her face. Madame Aung San, or Daw Khin Kyi as she was also known, was the Burmese ambassador to India, and Suu and she lived in 24, Akbar Road, today the New Delhi headquarters of the Congress.
I've often been asked whether Suu displayed any of the leadership qualities that were to make her the courageous and principled woman of 1988 and after. Though active in college activities such as writing an entertaining spoof on Anthony and Cleopatra that we enacted with what we thought was superb histrionic flair — Suu was Julius Caesar — neither at Lady Shri Ram nor later at St Hugh's College, Oxford, was she politically active. No discussions on Tariq Ali's latest fiery speech or a controversial Oxford Union debate had us burning the midnight oil. Rather, my abiding memories of those days are of her irrepressible giggle as we shared a joke, upright posture — never an adolescent slouch — and great pride in lineage. "I will never be allowed to forget whose daughter I am," she would say. History was soon to prove her right.
Over the years, Aung San Suu Kyi learnt to 'cope' and 'adjust' — those convenient hold-all terms used for women juggling many lives. After a degree in Modern Greats (PPE) from Oxford University, Suu married the Oxford-based Tibetologist, Michael Aris, and settled into a life of domesticity. Or so it seemed. Articulate yet stoic in her approach to a multitude of issues jostling for space — concern for her mother in faraway Rangoon, endless house guests, shifts in homes and countries and two growing sons — Suu managed admirably. One rarely saw anything of the strains of living between cultures, bearing the responsibility of being her father's daughter and wondering no doubt whether her country would ever reach out to her.
When, in March 1988, Suu returned to care for her seriously ill mother in Rangoon, she was in the midst of an interesting phase of research on her father, the legendary General Aung San. As tumultuous political events overtook her, she was not to go back to her home or to her books at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Hailed as the leader of the incipient democratic movement, Aung San Suu Kyi stepped confidently into her challenging new role in a country that had been shrouded from the world by the 26-year-old dictatorship of General Ne Win. She addressed endless public meetings, set up her own party and galvanized a people so long immersed in a miasma of hopelessness.
I've often wondered how things would have panned out for Suu and for Burma if she had not been in Rangoon that fateful summer. Without an iconic figure at the helm, the democratic movement would doubtless have been suppressed in no time. The junta's ruthlessness would continue unabated and, in faraway Oxford, Suu could have done little more than introspect and grieve for her country. But that's not what destiny had in store for Aung San Suu Kyi. Her visit to Rangoon that fateful spring linked her inextricably to the future of a beleaguered land. A year of violence, bloodshed and untold misery followed — in the pro-democracy protests of the summer of 1988, many monks and young idealists were among the estimated 3,000 people killed. Choosing to overlook Aung San Suu Kyi's newly founded National League for Democracy which swept the polls in May 1989, in July the military junta placed the new leader under house arrest, claiming that her activities were endangering the State. In the six years of detention that followed, she became an author, a political thinker and a well-read, dignified symbol of non-violent protest. Books are what she asked for consistently from her husband in England: texts by and on Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, spiritualism and Buddhism were among her favourites as Aung San Suu Kyi filled long hours with meditating, reading and reflecting about the future. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991 and the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding the following year, today, she has over 80 international awards and honorary doctorates to her name.
Her husband, Michael, stayed on in Oxford with their young sons, Alexander and Kim — Baba, as was he was fondly called. Indefatigable in his work for the cause of democracy in Burma, he was instrumental in keeping Suu's struggle, her days of incarceration and the wider aim of freedom and security on the international agenda. When, in late 1998, his cancer was discovered, the junta refused Michael permission to visit Suu; however, the rulers said, she was free to visit her dying husband. Knowing that there would be no going back, Suu chose not to leave her country.
On May 30, 2003, as Aung San Suu Kyi's motorcade left Mandalay, there was a murderous attack on it by four truckloads of people armed with iron rods, bamboo and iron spears. Several of her followers were killed, and an eye-witness felt sure that the degree and nature of the violence meant that it was a genuine attempt to assassinate the leader. It was from the incarceration following this incident — including a spell at the notorious Insein prison — that she emerged on Friday. In the intervening years, the NLD has suffered from the absence of its leader, and the boycott of the elections of November meant its disbandment; the junta-supported Union Solidarity and Development Party won 80 per cent seats in an election regarded as largely rigged.
Among other things, Suu will surely have to strategize on rejuvenating her party, now referred to as a social movement, involve alienated ethnic minorities and speak to the world once more for her country. A world that has been unfailing in its admiration and support for her, with India being a notable exception, citing the need for the junta's support in protecting our porous Northeast. While cautiously welcoming her release, S.M. Krishna could not fail to acknowledge the presence of the junta as he spoke of reconciliation. How will Suu react to the consistent pusillanimity of a country that was not only her childhood home, but is also Burma's neighbour and the world's largest democracy?