Aung San Suu Kyi has come to symbolise the struggle of the whole Burmese nation to achieve unity and freedom.
In 1996 I watched incredible footage of the pro-democracy leader striding through the streets of Yangon for the first time in 15 years, thronged by supporters, and I became fascinated by Suu Kyi’s story and undying devotion to liberate her people.
In April this year I travelled to Burma for the first time and was fortunate enough to see Aung San Suu Kyi and take her picture. It was a media scrum, not a portrait sitting, but it was still an enormous thrill.
My travelling companions and I had just swung by the headquarters of her (National League for Democracy) party to buy a t-shirt, and ‘The Lady’ happened to be leaving at that very moment.
We stood outside afterwards, in a state of disbelief, that we had been within metres of a woman almost universally idolised by 50 million Burmese.
Once the most wealthy nation in Asia, Burma (re-named Myanmar by the military government in 1989) now rates among that continent’s poorest.
A British colony from 1885 to 1948, it was often romanticised under colonial rule. Perhaps the best example is the much-reworked song ‘The Road to Mandalay’ – which adopted lyrics from the well-known Rudyard Kipling poem.
The reality for the Burmese people was often very different and, under self government, became progressively worse.
The country was subjected to the Burma Socialist Programme Party’s ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’, which almost ruined the economy and drove thousands into poverty.
There were no free elections and freedom of expression was almost entirely denied. Student and worker demonstrations in the 1960s and 1970s were brutally crushed – torture, political imprisonment, and other human rights abuses were common.
Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 to nurse her dying mother and soon became embroiled in the democracy movement. In August 1988, the military regime responded to growing unrest by killing up to 5000 demonstrators.
In the face of increasing domestic and international pressure the dictatorship held a general election in 1990.
Despite the arrest of Suu Kyi and many of her party members during the campaign, The NLD won a phenomenal 82 per cent of seats contested, but the result was simply ignored by the ruling junta.
She was held under house arrest until 1995, and when released faced serious travel restrictions. However, the junta was only too happy to allow Suu Kyi to travel to the UK to visit her husband Michael Aris, who was dying of cancer.
Both she and Aris knew that, should Suu Kyi leave, it was unlikely she would be allowed back in to Burma. This forced her to choose between her country and seeing the man she loved one last time.
She stayed – but was again placed under house arrest in 2000 when she attempted to hold political rallies outside Yangon.
After United Nations intervention, Suu Kyi was released again in 2002, and a year later survived an assasination attempt in which as many as 70 of her supporters were beaten to death.
She was again arrested and not seen in public until 2007. In May, 2009, just days before her period of house arrest was due to expire, US citizen John Yettaw swam across Inya lake and refused to leave her house.
After the ensuing trial she was sentenced to another 18 months under house arrest, a term which ended in November 2010, the same month the military government established the Union Solidarity and Development Party as its political front – technically ending military rule.
In the relatively short period since, Burma’s struggle for democracy has arguably come further than at any point in the past 60 years.
In April 2012 by-elections, the NLD’s first foray into politics after its annulled victory of 1990, it won 43 out of 45 vacant parliamentary seats – granting Suu Kyi a place next to those responsible for her years of suppression.
The NLD’s aim to help the Burmese people ‘free themselves from the fear and indifference in which they have been sunk’ is no longer a pipedream and there seems to be little stopping Suu Kyi from a presidential run in 2015.
Supporters and international observers are wary of hoping for too much, the record of the regime speaks for itself, but there has been a definite thawing of its hardline approach.
In almost every home and business where we travelled in Burma there is a picture of The Lady. People seem to speak openly of their support for the NLD without fear of punishment.
While backbreaking labour and a meagre existence is still the norm for many Burmese, it was apparent on our trip just how much the country is emerging from repression.
View the more light-hearted Facebook gallery to part I by clicking here.
In part two of this series we take a 13-hour bus trip north of Yangon to Kalaw and start out on an epic hike to the beautiful Inle Lake.