Every morning Aung San Suu Kyi wakes at 4 a.m. knowing there is nowhere she can go, that there is no prospect she will be allowed outside. Inside the mildewing two-storey villa the Myanmarese (Burmese) junta has made her prison, she meditates, sometimes for hours, before turning her attention to one of five radios tuned to stations around the world.
These distant voices, broadcasts from the BBC, Voice of America, the rebel news service Democratic Voice of Burma, and others, are her only constant link with the outside world. She has no phone, no TV and no internet. Her mail is heavily censored. Often it is not delivered.
She spends her days reading, in Myanmarese and English, philosophy, biographies and novels. John le Carre and Georges Simenon are favourites. She was once a keen pianist, but the muggy heat has warped her piano.
Staff and visitors
But Aung San Suu Kyi is not alone. The 65-year-old Buddhist lives with two long-serving maids, mother and daughter Khin Khin Win and Win Ma Ma, who have been sentenced with their employer for this final stretch of house detention.
Aung San Suu Kyi is allowed few visitors; those who come are strictly vetted, their visits closely monitored. Fresh food is delivered daily. Her family doctor pays a house call once a month.
One of the few people who see her is her lawyer and confidant U Nyan Win, who visits fortnightly. He brings the magazines Time and Newsweek at each visit “because she must know about the news from around the world”. He said: “She has a simple life in her home. But she can never leave. Not even to go outside into the gardens, to the compound. She is always inside. She is healthy, she exercises in her home. And she has strong spirit, she is determined.” The once grand lakeside home at 54 University Avenue, Yangon (Rangoon), a house she inherited from her mother looks every one of its 90-odd years; despite some renovations this year it still needs repairs. The electricity fails regularly. For days following Cyclone Nargis in 2008 she read by candlelight. The villa's gardens, once immaculate, are now overrun by vines. Fifteen years of imprisonment has robbed Aung San Suu Kyi of much.
Her husband, the British academic Michael Aris, died in 1999 of cancer. She could not visit him while he was dying without risking being exiled from her country forever, and the junta refused him an entry visa to Myanmar.
She has not seen her two sons in more than 10 years. She has never met her grandchildren. Every year her sons apply for visas, every year they are rejected without explanation. Until this week. In Bangkok on November 10, her youngest son, Kim Aris, got permission to enter Myanmar; it is not known when he will get to the country.
“It has been a hard life, she has sacrificed a lot. But she is used [to it] now. And she keeps working, waiting for the day she will be released,” said her lawyer.
For all of Burma that day is expected as soon as tomorrow, which is when, according to U Nyan Win, her current sentence expires “and there is no mechanism under Myanmarese law to extend that detention, to keep her under house arrest, they must let her go”. There can be no guarantees from a junta that has detained Aung San Suu Kyi, arbitrarily, three times in two decades, but hints from “unnamed military sources” suggest she will be released.
“I have not been told that she will be released but it is my expectation,” said U Nyan Win, at his law office in Yangon.
Aung San Suu Kyi's final appeal against her sentence was rejected by the Supreme Court and her legal team has been assessing what it means for her liberty. The court's decision is a moot point though; she has almost completed this last sentence.
Spells of freedom
Since 1989, when she was first detained, Aung San Suu Kyi's previous brief spells of freedom have always come with strict conditions from the military. Previously, she has been banned from leaving Yangon, or forced to register with the army whenever going beyond the city. But she always railed against restrictions. In 2000 she spent six days in her car at a military roadblock after being stopped from leaving Rangoon, the stand-off ending when she was put back under house arrest.
Aung San Suu Kyi, once free, will address the Myanmarese people and media, U Nyan Win said. She wants to reinvigorate the National League for Democracy, the party she led to victory at the 1990 election but which has been proscribed by the junta after advocating a boycott of the November 7 poll. All of this is certain to raise the ire of the junta's generals. On past form, theirs and hers, Aung San Suu Kyi's liberty might be short-lived. (Jack Davies is a pseudonym.) — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010
After 15 years, the Myanmarese opposition leader is expected to be released from house arrest in less than 48 hours.