A heroine who needs our help

After Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi is the world leader we admire most. Ian Collins looks at the latest popular bid to spring Burma's rightful premier from prison.

After Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi is the world leader we admire most. Ian Collins looks at the latest popular bid to spring Burma's rightful premier from prison.

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Gordon Brown's recent book on heroes and heroines included a touching tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi, the should-be leader of Burma. She needs more than warm words now.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, and celebrated political prisoner, is the barely-glimpsed figure behind the latest protests in one of the world's poorest, most repressed and closed countries.

The daughter of Aung San, who steered Burma to independence from Britain in 1947 only to be assassinated in that same year, spent much of her adult life in exile after military rule snuffed out a fledgling democracy back in 1962.

Married to Tibet scholar Michael Aris in Britain, and with two sons Alexander and Kim, she returned to Rangoon alone in 1988 to care for her ailing mother. Her visit coincided with pro-democracy demonstrations, which she was called upon to lead.

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Under house arrest from 1989, Suu Kyi was allowed to stand in elections a year later in which, despite endless restrictions, she won a sweeping victory.

Then came another junta clamp-down, and the rightful premier has been in detention for 12 of the last 18 years.

She has refused to leave her country, knowing that she would not be allowed back. Her sons collected her Nobel prize on her behalf.

When her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he was denied an entry permit to Burma. He died in 1999. The couple had not met in 11 years

Buddhism, of which Suu Kyi is a devout believer, championing the principle of non-violence, has a great deal to teach the world about endurance.

As she said in one of her most famous speeches, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

But despite such fortitude in the face of military brutality - with thousands of unarmed student-led protesters shot dead in 1988 - the pro-democracy movement long faltered until it passed to an army of pacifist monks.

The immediate spur for uproar on August 19 was a doubling of fuel prices which threatened to make mass poverty even more grinding. Arrests and intimidation kept that challenge in check, until the monks took charge. With their shaved heads and crimson and saffron robes, and chanting “Democracy! Democracy”, they were a far more formidable foe.

Gathering day after day in their thousands at Rangoon's soaring Shwedagon Pagoda shrine, and marching through the streets of major cities, the clerics even got past the barricades to greet Suu Kyi at the gate of her guarded compound in her first public appearance in three years. That path was then blocked again.

Even amid prevailing fears among ordinary people of savage reprisals, crowds have swollen to huge numbers.

Despite issuing dire warnings, and now deploying trucks of riot police around the capital, Burma's brutal military rulers have shown rare restraint - not just because firing on unarmed monks might spark a revolution but due to pressure from the country's key trading partner, China.

The increasingly confrontational tone of the anti-government protesters has raised both expectations of possible political change and fear that the military might crush the demonstrations, as it did in 1988.

A south east Asian diplomat, speaking anonymously, said the regime is being pressed by China to avoid a crackdown and accept democratic changes.

“The Myanmar (Burma) government is tolerating the protesters and not taking any action against the monks because of pressure from China,” the diplomat told The Associated Press.

“Beijing is to host next summer's Olympic Games. Everyone knows that China is the major supporter of the junta so if government takes any action it will affect the image of China.”

China, which counts on Burma's vast oil and gas reserves to fuel its booming economy, earlier this year blocked the UN Security Council criticising Burma's rights record, saying it was not the right forum.

The United States has imposed, and now tightened, unilateral sanctions, with First Lady Laura Bush a vocal supporter.

But at the same time China has employed quiet diplomacy and subtle public pressure on the regime, urging it to move toward inclusive democracy and speed up the process of dialogue and reform.

Josef Silverstein, a political scientist and author of several books on Burma, said it would not be in China's interest to have civil unrest in the country.

“China is very eager to have a peaceful Burma in order to complete roads and railroads, to develop mines and finish assimilating the country under its economic control,” Mr Silverstein said. “As long as there is war or potential for war, that doesn't serve China's interest at all.'

Larry Jagan, who also has written extensively on Burma, agreed, saying he believes the junta is now much more conscious of how its actions play in the international community.

“What happened in 1988 - the bloodshed on the streets - is not going to be acceptable to the regimes that support the Burmese military regime,” he said. “The Chinese, the Indians, the (south east Asian countries) are not going to be prepared to see civilians shot mercilessly by soldiers.”

Thanks to emails and mobile phones the world is now watching.