A Visit to Aung San Suu Kyi's Neighborhood

After the trial of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi began, I visited Rangoon. The road barriers and heavy security outside her home, which I'd seen on a previous trip, were gone. "She doesn't live there anymore," my taxi driver told me as we drove past her compound gate. What was once a tightly controlled thoroughfare was now just like any other potholed road in Rangoon, Burma's biggest city and former capital (which the regime calls Yangon). A very bored-looking policeman sat outside the residence. After he ordered me to walk on the opposite side of the road, I gave him a thumbs-up in response—and got a toothy smile and a wave. Two blue police trucks were parked by the house with riot shields fastened to the sides. But the place seemed almost deserted, as if nobody expected Suu Kyi back any time soon.

What a contrast compared with the tight security I encountered in March, when Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. Back then she was due to be released on May 27, having spent 14 of the past two decades in detention, ever since her return from Britain in 1988. I took a local taxi—a beaten-up old wreck of a thing, as are most of the other cars and trucks on Rangoon's roads—and simply asked the driver to take me near "the Lady's house." It wasn't an enormously long distance to the far end of University Avenue, but the driver's silence and my own apprehension made it seem longer.

As we drew close to barricades and security personnel, with several military-transport vehicles not far away, the driver slowed down and then stopped. "Go past the barricades—if you can—and it's up on your left," the driver muttered. I got out and, heart pounding, walked up to the barbed-wire fencing and barrier gates that blocked the entire road.

A policeman came up and asked, "Can I help you?" I blurted, "I'd like to see Aung San Suu Kyi's house." After some perfunctory questions (designed to determine I wasn't a journalist) and perusal of my passport, he said, "OK, follow me."

The policeman walked beside me and launched into some surreal, mundane questions in broken English. Did I like Arsenal or Manchester United football teams? What did I think of David Beckham? Will I be here for the Water Splashing Festival national holiday? I should stay because it is good fun. Will I go to Bagan, the ancient capital, with its ruined temples and pagodas? I should go, because it is very beautiful there. He kept up this banter the whole way, watching me carefully, actively distracting me.

Coming to a nondescript, closed compound gate, I had to stop and ask, "So this is her house?" He answered, "Yes, yes. Come, it's getting late"—and then pointedly laid his palm on my left elbow. I wasn't going to push my luck; I allowed him to escort me away from the gate to the barricades at the far end of the road. There the policeman said goodbye. Some soldiers leaning against a truck stopped chatting as I walked past, then guffawed loudly at my back.

Her residence has been a longtime rallying point for the nation's democracy activists. A year after the military's bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in August 1988, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for the first time. From the gates of her compound she's addressed thousands of supporters over the years. It was from this vantage point, in September 2007, that she greeted hundreds of assembled Buddhist monks during the biggest antigovernment protests since 1988.

Sparked by the junta's decision to allow fuel prices to rise almost 60 percent, the monk-led demonstrations were joined by thousands of locals voicing dissatisfaction with the military government. Protest marches sprang up in other cities, but they ended in bloodshed. The regime's official death toll was 13; the real figure is believed to be much higher.

After my close encounter with Suu Kyi's closed gate, I wound up in a noisy restaurant in Rangoon's Chinatown, where I met Mo. His full name cannot be printed for fear of recrimination. Mo came from Kachin, a state in the northeast of the country, and was visiting family in Rangoon. We chatted over cold Myanmar beers and a feast of fried peanuts, shrimp and pickled tea leaves. I asked him what it meant to be Burmese and where he thought Burma was heading. "I am a person first, Burmese second and a Muslim last," he said, looking at the Buddhist rosary beads wrapped around my wrist, which I'd picked up at the Shwedagon Pagoda. His burly body shook in merriment at the thought of a white-skinned Buddhist.

But Mo's eyes suddenly narrowed as his gaze settled on a young couple sitting nearby; he had figured out that the man was from the military. "But people like him, the Army, I hate them ... We cannot be people because of them. I hate them," he repeated. Then he laughed. I asked about the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the elections promised for next year. "With the Lady in prison, what can we do? She is everything to us. Without her, she ..." Mo's words broke off. He winced; his eyes reddened and began to tear. "I'm sorry ... the smoke in here," he said calmly. And laughed again.

These days the roads of Rangoon are filled with motorbikes, Chinese-made bicycles converted to trishaws and ancient Japanese rustbuckets. Occasionally, nearly invisible drivers behind the black tinted windows of brand-new Mercedeses—official cars—roar past as if, well, as if they own the place. As in any dictatorship, only the upper echelons of the military gain from stripping the country of its natural resources. Burma exported US$2.49 billion worth of gas alone in 2008, mainly to member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus South Korea, Japan and China, the latter of which is currently working on a US$2.5 billion cross-border oil and gas pipeline. Little of that money trickles down. Every shop and market in Rangoon's city center appears to survive hand-to-mouth, while the suburbs languish in a state of decay.

During my current visit, I stopped at a "beer station" restaurant where University Avenue meets the southeastern tip of Inya Lake. Many cops stationed in the area come here for a pint of Myanmar beer and a bite to eat; some slightly more officious-looking men in smart shirts and silk longyis knock back Johnnie Walker Red by the bottle. Just beyond my table a taxi driver, who said his name was Tin, leaned against the door of his car chewing betel nut—a local stimulant—and spitting the blood-red juices onto the road. I asked him about the lifting of the roadblocks. "Oh, yes, they did that last week or so," Tin said. "Aung San Suu Kyi is in prison now, so no need [to block the road]."

Very little seems to be known here about the American named John Yettaw, who is also standing trial, except for the fact that he was arrested for illegally entering Suu Kyi's compound by swimming across Inya Lake. As a result of his actions, she will most likely now be sentenced to another prison term. And without a leader, the pro-democracy opposition party will face serious challenges come election time. Grassroots Burmese are puzzled and disappointed by Yettaw's actions. "When I read about the American swimming to her house I didn't believe it; they often say bad things about her in the newspapers," Min, a university student from Mandalay studying in Rangoon, told me. "I don't understand how anyone would do that."

Min is 25 and says he'll vote for the NLD in the elections next year—if they take place. He said many students are angry about Suu Kyi's fate. "She is the daughter of Gen. Aung San [Burma's postwar independence leader]. He wanted freedom for the people, and so does she," he said emphatically. "I hate our government."

People talk about her final court hearing and sentencing—which could come as soon as the end of the month—as a foregone conclusion. In a downtown teahouse, I asked a retired schoolteacher how he thinks Suu Kyi's trial will affect the elections slated for 2010. "Well, the government was going to win anyway," said the teacher, who'd been educated by Christian missionaries. Asking not to be named in print because he feared retaliation, he said he was an NLD member, but sees very little hope for change in the wake of the 2007 crackdown, and especially now. "That American did no good," he said. "But now it's too late."

Suu Kyi, her two live-in aides and Yettaw await the verdicts. A decade ago, two British pro-democracy activists were arrested in Burma. In 1999, Rachel Goldwyn was suddenly released after serving two months of a seven-year sentence; in 2000, James Mawdsley was released after serving 14 months of a 17-year sentence. Yettaw may face a similar fate.

As for Suu Kyi and her aides, it's more than likely they'll receive prison sentences. Burma watchers guess she could get five years. But with mounting international pressure, that may be reduced by the military government to show its "magnanimity." However, one thing seems more than certain: if the regime goes ahead with elections in 2010, it will try to ensure yet another vote in which Aung San Suu Kyi, and the National League for Democracy that she heads, have virtually no chance at victory.

A Visit to Aung San Suu Kyi's Neighborhood | World