By Fred Hiatt
Saturday, June 19, 2010; A17
Any movement from dictatorship to democracy "is likely to be prolonged and difficult," a national leader once wrote. "Hope and optimism are irrepressible, but there is a deep underlying premonition that the opposition to change is likely to be vicious."
Aung San Suu Kyi expressed that premonition in 1989, when she turned 44 and her Southeast Asian nation of Burma seemed on the verge of climbing out from under a four-decade-old dictatorship. Today, as she turns 65 in the near-total isolation of house arrest, it's fair to say that the process has been more prolonged, and the opposition more vicious, than even she might have expected.
The daughter of Burma's hero of independence -- himself assassinated in 1947 at age 32 -- she wrote her warning in an essay titled "In Quest of Democracy" after returning to Rangoon from Britain to care for her ailing mother. She was married, to an Oxford scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, and had two small boys. She had no plans to lead a nation. She had envisioned moving back to Burma someday, but "in order to set up a chain of public libraries and to organize scholarship schemes for students" -- not to enter politics.
But a student-led movement for democracy, catching fire the year before the Tiananmen movement in Beijing, swept her up and enlisted her as leader. Her country was transfixed by her integrity, poise and courage -- most famously when she insisted on walking, alone, directly toward a row of soldiers who had been ordered to shoot to kill, an order countermanded by a senior officer at the very last moment.
Her popularity confounded the generals who had mismanaged the nation into poverty. They called her a communist, a CIA plant, the mother of mongrels. They placed her under house arrest in her family's lakeside villa in Rangoon. And still the National League for Democracy (NLD), which she led, overwhelmingly won an election that the generals, mistaking the people's mood, allowed to take place in relative freedom in 1990.
That was the high-water mark, to date, of Burmese democracy. The generals never allowed the elected parliament to be seated. They keep their 50 million people in a straitjacket rivaled for brutality only, perhaps, by North Korea. Lately, evidence suggests that, in cooperation with North Korea and perhaps Iran, they are seeking a nuclear capability.
And still the generals are confounded by Aung San Suu Kyi. They have had her locked up for nearly 15 of the past 21 years. When her husband was dying of cancer in Britain in 1999, she could not visit him, because they would not guarantee that she could return to Burma. They do not permit her sons to visit. When they briefly released her, in 2003, the jubilant response wherever she went confirmed her continuing popularity; the generals responded by sending thugs who nearly killed her in the northern town of Depayin, and then by locking her up again.
All of this has turned her into something she did not want to be -- an icon, a Nobel Peace laureate, a symbol of freedom and grace. By all accounts, she would rather be a politician, leading her party, negotiating the mechanisms of transition that she was writing about 21 years ago. Instead, the junta is planning a sham election for later this year under a law written purposefully to exclude her and the NLD.
The White House, like governments around the world, issued a statement commemorating Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday. But the junta has shrugged off President Obama's initiative to "engage" it; Obama's vaunted recommitment to diplomacy has failed to persuade Burma's neighbors to pressure the dictators, and thus far the administration appears to have no Plan B.
"Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day," Aung San Suu Kyi wrote two decades ago. "A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile, the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man's self-respect and inherent human dignity."
In Burma today, more than 2,000 dissidents and democrats are in prison, often in gruesome conditions, without any expectation of White House statements or Nobel honors. If she could speak publicly, Aung San Suu Kyi might well dedicate her birthday to them -- and to the "small, daily acts of courage" that most of us, taking our freedom for granted, can hardly imagine.