Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Will Suu Kyi Be Targeted?

Aung San Suu Kyi’s backers say it’s time for her to meet the public. She’s been attacked once by junta supporters. Could it happen again?

By Phil Thornton for

‘They tried to assassinate her then…and today…the military hardliners still want her dead. They won’t do it themselves, but they’ll use drunken thugs like they did in Depayin,’ says Moe Zaw Oo, joint secretary of the exiled branch of the National League for Democracy.

Back in May 2002, following her release from 19 months of house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi, with permission from the military regime, embarked on a mammoth political tour of 95 townships. She met with various ethnic groups including Shan, Kaichin and Karen. She also opened NLD offices in rural areas.

Suu Kyi’s ability to attract large, passionate crowds confirmed her position as a national leader – and a huge threat to the regime. Years of house arrest and official vilification by the regime have done little to diminish her popularity. From makeshift stages, Suu Kyi urged the thousands of enthusiastic supporters who came to meet her in each town to continue to struggle for democracy and to respect human rights.

Depayin Massacre

By the time Suu Kyi and her entourage of about 100 people and seven NLD vehicles had entered Sagaing town on the May 29, 2003, the regime was putting the finishing touches to its response to her ever-increasing popularity. The increasing number of metal bar-wielding drunken thugs along the route were an indication it would be violent. About 800 members of the regime-sponsored Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA) lined the streets and gave a taste of what was to follow, hurling threats and harassing the pro-Suu Kyi crowds.

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Moe Zaw removes a CD from a plastic folder. ‘People need to see this to understand Mrs Suu Kyi’s relationship with the Burmese people, and to understand why the regime fears her so much,’ she says.

Rough subtitles splashed across the TV screen announce that we’re about to see raw footage taken from Suu Kyi’s 2003 tour. What’s striking about the images on the screen is the spontaneous reaction of the crowd to her – there’s no doubting the adulation. The massive 40,000-strong crowd crams itself into every available space – rooftops, shopfronts, verandas and trees. They try to touch her as she passes by, and are silent as she speaks. Suu Kyi urges them to get involved in politics, to take responsibility and to help shape the future of their country.

‘When I hear the peoples’ voice, I know they want change, but the people have to do something to have that change…it won’t happen by itself. People have to know the truth, but it’s not enough just to know…people have to do something for the truth,’ she shouts above the static buzz of the microphone, to the raucous approval of the crowds.

Suu Kyi tells the crowd to have ‘tolerance, patience and endurance.’

The raw footage is testimony to Suu Kyi’s rapport and ability to truly engage with the Burmese people – a gift politicians worldwide would be envious of.

Since Burma’s national elections last year – the first in 20 years, various international groups and political pundits have questioned whether Suu Kyi’s 15 years of house arrest have reduced her relevance and importance to the country’s political future. The images in this video, however, leave no doubt that she shares an unbreakable bond with her people – likened by some to that shared between Nelson Mandela and the South African people.

Indeed, it’s this connection between Suu Kyi and the Burmese people that has the hard men ruling Burma uneasy, and which makes them willing to do whatever it takes to remove her from the public sphere, even if means jailing her for decades – or some say trying to kill her.

Moe Zaw freezes the video to show a mob of stick-waving 'monks', metal helmeted men and army jacketed USDA members swearing and waving their fists at the NLD convoy. The 800-strong mob wave English language signs that say in English ‘Get Out,’ and scream slogans parroting the regimes accusations that Suu Kyi is under the influence of foreigners.

By the night of May 30, 2003, Suu Kyi and hundreds of her National League for Democracy supporters lay bloodied in hospital beds. Many had succumbed to their wounds, while many others arrested. Following the attacks, the regime cracked down, and detained 256 NLD members, including Suu Kyi.

Toe Lwin was one of those arrested.

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‘As head of Mrs Suu Kyi’s bodyguards I was in the middle of the attacks. I tried to protect her from the thugs and the metal bars. Mrs Suu Kyi was bleeding from cuts caused by flying glass. I saw women and children badly beaten. Female NLD members were dragged from cars, their clothes torn from them and beaten until they lost consciousness.’

Toe Lwin says he started to really worry about Suu Kyi’s security in Madaya city.

‘The USDA had been harassing our convoy,’ he says. ‘Many local monks joined us to help protect Mrs Suu Kyi. It was after this that we started to notice that fake monks had joined with the USDA.’

He says it wasn’t hard to spot the fake monks.

‘Their heads were recently shaved, we called them “green heads,” they wore armbands, they were drunk…they carried sticks and swore,’ he says. ‘They weren’t even robed properly. When the attack happened they smashed the young women with their sticks, cursed them – they were ruthless.’

Despite his injuries, Toe Lwin was arrested and taken by Military Intelligence Unit 17 to Khantee prison.

‘I was mentally tortured and beaten by the MI for two weeks,' he adds.

The international community was quick to voice its condemnation. The regime’s response was to deceive.

At the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 29, the junta’s Foreign Minister Win Aung said: ‘We don't call this house arrest…we’re helping her to overcome health problems.’

A report by the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus two years later noted that: ‘ASEAN broke its usual silence on Myanmar and expressed its outrage in the awake of the attack on 30 May 2003. But now, two years later, that voice has diminished…It’s crucial that ASEAN does not forget the vile attack at Depayin.’

The 12-page report joined the dots and concluded that the Depayin attacks were a regime-sanctioned attempt by the regime to kill Aung San Suu Kyi.

‘There is clear indication that the attack was premeditated. The Depayin Massacre was essentially an assassination attempt on Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the NLD. A report by Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to Myanmar Professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said that, “There is prima facie evidence that the Depayin incident could not have happened without the connivance of State agents.”’

Despite ASEAN’s outrage at the time, its voice has since shifted to one of encouragement for, and engagement with, Burma’s new government. 

But New York-based Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher on Burma, David Mathieson, is clear on the USDA’s involvement in the 2003 attack on Suu Kyi and the NLD.

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‘In 2003, hundreds of its (USDA) cadres staged a violent assault on Mrs Suu Kyi’s motorcade in the upper Burma town of Depayin, killing about 70 of her supporters.’

Mathieson says Senior Gen. Than Shwe formed the USDA in 1993 as a civilian surveillance network to intimidate activists, stir-up trouble at political rallies, and harass political opponents by using threats, beatings and arrests.

Mathieson says that prior to the recent elections, the USDA morphed into the Union Solidarity and Development Party, in order to enable the military regime to ensure its vice-like grip on power.

‘Many of the generals who have ruled the country for years assumed nominally civilian roles in the new power structure. All are from the USDP, which won more than 77 percent of the votes in the November 2010 elections widely derided as completely rigged,' he says. 'The new president is former Prime Minister Thein Sein, also party leader of the USDP.’

The NLD’s Moe Zaw says that it was only the swift actions of Suu Kyi’s driver that saved her life.

‘It was an assassination attempt. Her driver disobeyed her order to stay and help the people…the thugs smashed the car windows and tried to beat Mrs Suu Kyi with metal bars. She was hurt and bleeding, but the driver saved her life by getting her to safety.’

Moe Zaw pauses the CD, and the screams of the beaten are silenced as the screen clicks to black.

The Party Member

Outside the two-storey house acting as the exiled NLD’s office, monsoon rains are lashing down against the shuttered windows. The dirt road leading to the house has turned to mud. Moe Zaw Oo takes off his glasses and explains that writing about politics has caused him to spend nine of his 42 years in a Burmese jail.

‘I was sentenced to 10 years jail under the Emergency Provisions Act section 5, A, B and E. I don’t know what they are or what they mean, but it meant I spent nine years in jail. I was 21.’

Before being sent to prison, Moe Zaw was an active member of the NLD youth wing Central Working Committee and took part in non-violent civil disobedience activities led by Suu Kyi. Moe Zaw says that if she doesn’t take adequate security precautions, she will be killed.

‘It’s a life and death situation. She knows it’s risky,’ he says. ‘She doesn’t like to talk about it. It’s tough for her – if she doesn’t go to meet people, they win. I pray if there’s trouble she’ll run.’

Moe Zaw says both sides have signalled their intentions. Aung San Suu Kyi has been anything but silent since her release from house arrest in November last year, and has used media interviews, teleconferences, video messages and face-to-face interviews to call for all of Burma’s 2,100 political prisoners to be released. Last month, she urged the International Labour Organisation to ‘help usher in an era of broad-based social justice’ in Burma.

The former military regime, still seen by many international observers as a civilian government in name only, has responded to Suu Kyi’s intention to tour.

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Earlier this month, Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo warned in a statement welcoming US Sen. John McCain to Burma that was also published in the state-controlled newspaper The New Light of Myanmar that:

‘Regarding Daw Aung San Suu Kyi issue, she is considered to be an ordinary civilian that the government will not prohibit from doing any activities in accordance with the law; however, it’s needed to give priority to State stability and peace and the rule of order.’

In the same newspaper, the country’s foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, reiterated the vice president’s remarks in response to questions from McCain.

‘McCain asked about the attitude towards Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The union minister replied that now, she has the right to act as an ordinary person. She is meeting freely with the people she wants to, including diplomats. Any Burmese citizen must accept and recognize the state constitution. For the people, they as individuals or in parties can participate in nation building tasks if they wish to do so by standing for election.’

McCain’s questions about Burma’s 2,100 political prisoners, meanwhile, were treated with disdain by both the vice president and the foreign ministers.

‘Union Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin said that Burma has firmly announced that there are no political prisoners in the country. Those serving their prison terms in Burma’s jails are just law offenders. Although some of them may be associated with political parties, action was taken against them not because they’re members of political parties.’

Last week, the paper carried articles specifically warning Suu Kyi that she was treading on dangerous ground. The paper reported that the minister of home affairs had sent Suu Kyi a letter informing her that her party was breaking the law.

Many of her supporters say the vice president and foreign minister’s statements are little more than a reminder of what they can do under Burma’s vague but deadly laws.

Human Rights Watch, in their 2009 report Burma’s Forgotten Prisoners, noted how the regime manipulated the law to jail its opponents.

‘The military government uses vaguely worded archaic laws that criminalize free expression, peaceful demonstration, and forming organizations,’ it said.

Ultimately in Burma, all opposition-driven political activity is regarded as a threat by the government. Freedom of expression or association is non-existent.

Suu Kyi’s supporters say the government won’t hesitate to use laws such as SLORC Order No.2, which was created during the 1988 demonstrations and which clearly outlaws practically everything Suu Kyi plans to do when she travels the country to meet the people. It states, for example, that, ‘Gathering, walking, marching in procession, chanting slogans, delivering speeches, agitating, and creating disturbances on the streets by a group of five people or more is banned regardless of whether the act is with the intention of creating disturbance or of committing a crime or not.’

The Monk

Ashin Issariya, known by his supporters as King Zero, was one of the monks who led the protests that swept through Burma in 2007. Ashin Issariya says he knows from first-hand experience what the government does to its political opponents.

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‘The words of the government minister are a clear warning to Mrs Suu Kyi. They can’t be considered anything less. They have put her on notice,’ he says, adding that the Depayin Massacre underscored how far the government was prepared to go.

‘They used convicts and dressed them as monks. Real monks I’ve spoken to in the area didn’t know any of them. They had chain marks on their wrists and ankles. They were drunk and crazed on ya ma (amphetamines). Their behaviour was never that of real monks.’

Ashin Issariya says Suu Kyi needs to go to the people, but warns that she needs tight security.

‘They’re afraid of her. She can organise the people, the people listen to her and the people want her. Depayin was an attempt to kill her,’ he says. ‘They failed then, but they arrested her and kept her out of politics by jailing her for seven years.’

The military regime’s crackdown on the 2003 protest left many dead, and 237 monks and seven nuns in jail. Ashin Issariya’s supporters worry that if the regime decides to arrest him, he could be held for decades. After all, his co-leaders are now serving draconian jail terms – Ashin Gambira was sentenced to 63 years and Ashin Kheminda 35 years.

‘All we did was protest on behalf of the suffering of the people. We just walked on the streets, we broke no laws, yet they (the regime) killed and beat us,’ Ashin Issariya says. ‘They’re not interested in talking. They want control of everything, the revenue, the people, the land. There’s no freedom of speech, we can’t write, we cannot speak out. It’s so bad people are leaving the country in their millions.’

In spite of the danger, he says he believes Suu Kyi still has to go to the people.

‘She is a national hero. She needs to talk and the people need to hear her talk. People are waiting for her to speak. The people want to know what she wants them to do.’

Ashin Issariya argues the government is a civilian front to make the military leadership more palatable for international governments, foreign aid donors and investors to do business.

‘The new government is run by the USDP, the old USDA – same face, different uniforms. The government is afraid of Mrs Suu Kyi’s relationship with the people and the power they give to her. That’s why they want to kill her.’

Suu Kyi’s former bodyguard, Toe Lwin, agrees with Ashin Issariya’s assessment.

‘Daw Suu is the only one who all the people of Burma believe. The ethnic people and their organisations support her – she is the key to national reconciliation,’ he says.

On July 4, Suu Kyi made her first trip out of Rangoon, the city in which she has been living since her release from house arrest, in order to visit an ancient temple city in central Burma with her son.

David Thakabaw, vice chairman of the Karen National Union and chairman of the National Democratic Front, says he worries for her safety.

‘International observers shouldn’t be fooled by the military regime changing their uniforms for civilian clothes – there’s no difference, it’s just more of the same,’ he says. ‘We fear for Mrs Suu Kyi’s safety when she goes on tour. This regime is frightening; they’re ultra nationalists and only interested in maintaining their power.

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‘In 2003, it was a well-planned attempt to kill Mrs Suu Kyi, sanctioned by the highest authority in the land – it was a premeditated attempt to assassinate her.’

Phil Thornton is a Southeast Asia-based writer and author of 'Restless Souls: Rebels, Refugees, Medics and Misfits on the Thai-Burma Border.'