No prime ministers took note when Aung Hlaing Win was seized on May 1 while sitting at a market food stall in Rangoon, the capital city of the totalitarian state of Burma.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee issued no statement when police cremated his badly bruised body days later, without allowing his young widow a viewing.

And neither the U.S. Congress nor any European notables objected when, just two weeks ago, a court in Burma ruled that Aung Hlaing Win, a 30-year-old member of the National League for Democracy, had died of chronic liver illness while in custody, not from beatings he received during interrogation.

Aung Hlaing Win's private tragedy was unfolding while the world's worthies were lavishing attention on the head of his democracy party, Aung San Suu Kyi, who on June 19 marked her 60th birthday while being held incommunicado under house arrest. There were tributes and calls for her release from President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners and leaders across the globe.

Those tributes were appropriate, and necessary. Aung San Suu Kyi is the Nelson Mandela of Asia. But there were risks also in the world's focus on one individual in Burma, for -- as she has often said, during her intervals of partial freedom -- the movement for democracy does not depend on any one person.

For, if Aung San Suu Kyi represents one great mystery of humanity -- its seeming ability to produce great leaders at moments of great need -- young Aung Hlaing Win represents another, perhaps even greater mystery: the willingness of ordinary people to risk everything for freedom, knowing that their sacrifice will be recorded in no one's history textbook.

Aung San Suu Kyi possesses the birth lines of leadership: Her father led Burma to independence from imperial Britain after World War II. But she married a British academic and raised her two boys in Oxford, without aspiration or training to lead a nation.

A visit home to her ailing mother in 1988 coincided with the rise of student opposition to the ruling military junta, and Aung San Suu Kyi was pressed to play a role. The dictators, with the usual clueless faith of their kind in their own popularity, called an election in 1990, which they lost in a landslide to Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League, though even then she was under house arrest. The generals never allowed the parliament to sit; many elected members to this day sit in prison instead.

Yet Aung San Suu Kyi remains the Burmese leader whom the world knows and reveres. Through a decade and a half of persecution, she has maintained a dignity, a serene steeliness, that every day rebukes the small-minded cruelties of her captors. The insults they shower upon her in their state press befoul them in ways they dimly perceive but never entirely understand.

We know little of her condition today; not even the Red Cross is permitted to visit her increasingly shabby lakefront house. We know even less of the 1,300 or more political prisoners and of the thousands more, in this nation of 50 million, who, like Aung Hlaing Win, stand up for liberty. The junta does its best to prevent any honest reporting from the country -- even unauthorized ownership of a fax machine is a crime -- so we can only guess at the drama underlying the few reported lines on his case.

Did he have an inkling of what was coming as he ate his noodles in that stall May 1? Did the judge who certified his death as accidental go home that night and mutter his secret shame to his wife? Did Aung Hlaing Win's friends warn him: Don't join the party, what good can it do?

In a way, that is the real mystery. The unsung fighters for democracy, whether in Burma or Belarus, Kazakhstan or China -- they do not ask themselves, What good will it do? Their calculations are made in some deeper place, hard to fathom for those of us spared such choices.

But over the coming months, many people in our fortunate outside world will face choices that could affect the answer to that question. The European Union, Japan, Burma's democratic neighbors in Southeast Asia and India -- these for the most part have followed a policy of "engagement" with Aung San Suu Kyi's captors, though she and her party consistently have warned that such a policy could only strengthen the repression.

Whether they have been motivated by genuine hope that the junta would reform, or by more cynical attraction to Burma's oil and other resources, doesn't really matter. It's clear that the policy has failed.

Now they could opt for a harder-headed policy of coordinated, sustained pressure on the regime to release political prisoners and begin a political dialogue. It's likely, though not assured, that setting such a price to Burma for being received in polite international company would have an impact. It's certain that birthday cards won't suffice.

fredhiatt@washpost.com