‘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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.
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.
‘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.’