AUNG SAN SUU KYI UNDER HOUSE ARREST

AUNG SAN SUU KYI UNDER HOUSE ARREST

Alarmed by her fearlessness and the support she commanded, the generals placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in July 1989 in Rangoon under martial law that allows for detention without charge or trial for three years. In August 1991, the military regime retroactively amended the law under which Aung San Suu Kyi was held to allow for detention for up to five years without charge or trial.

In January 1989, huge crowds of supporters showed up for the funeral of Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother. After that Aung San Suu Kyi started criticizing the brutality of the government. On April 5, 1989 she was place in front of a firing squad and just before they were going to shoot her a senior official stopped them. She was given the choice of staying in Burma under house arrest or leaving and enjoying her freedom. She stayed and continued to campaign for democracy.

During her six years of house arrest between 1989 and 1995, Aung San Suu Kyi stayed in her family house. She spent the first couple of years of her life in that house, which more recently had been where her mother lived before she passed away. When Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest The government told her they would let her go if she left the country immediately and never came back. While under house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi told the New York Times, "Whatever they do to me I can take it." She asked for police to be posted outside her house so she could not be blamed for any disturbances that took place on the streets in front of her home.”

Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t have much money coming in while she was under house arrest. The garden at the house became an overgrown jungle because she couldn't afford a gardener. For a long time she bought food and other necessities with royalties from her book Freedom from Fear . The royalties were transferred by her publisher into a bank account in Yangon.

To pay for food, Aung San Suu Kyi sold much of the furniture in her house. The only two items she refused to sell were her mother's piano and the round coffee table wheres member of the pro-democracy movement gathered in the late 1980s to plot strategy. When Philip Shenon of the New York Times visited her home the front hall was covered with papers carrying pro-democracy and pro-rule of law stating written by her father. One of them said: "You cannot use martial law as an excuse for justice."

Myanmar’s military regime released her in 1995, but it re-arrested and imprisoned her several times after that on various pretexts, including posing a threat to state security. The government also claimed it took her into “protective custody” after deadly attacks on her own supporters.

Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest from 1989 to 1995, 2000 to 2002, and from May 2003 to November 2010. After her 2003 detention her house arrest was extended on a year by year basis. By the time Suu Kyi was released from house arrest for good on November 13, 2010 she had spent 15 of 21 years either imprisoned or under house arrest.

On her house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi said: “I was in a much easier position than many of my colleagues because, from the very beginning, I had the protection of my father’s name. My father was the founder of the Burmese army, so they were quite restrained in how they treated me. The same restraint was not practised with regard to many of my colleagues, who were arrested, brutally interrogated, and imprisoned for years under terribly bleak circumstances.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s House

Aung San Suu Kyi's House (54 University Avenue on Inya Lake) is the modest, slightly-rundown, lakeside residence of pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. It is located in a posh neighborhood not far the homes of many of generals she battled for decades. Ne Win, the retired general who ruled Burma for more than 30 years, lived about a mile away, across Inya Lake. The New Yorker described her house as a “two-story colonial villa, stately but threadbare.”

Partially hidden by an overgrown garden, trees and a six-foot green and yellow picket fence, the house is not only the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, it was also the home of her late father, Aung San, a national hero and the leader of Burma's independence movement after World War II. Aung San Suu Kyi spent the early years of her life at the house and returned to it in 1988 after her mother had a stroke.

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Australian, “Aung San Suu Kyi's house has one of the loveliest views in Rangoon. Meters from the weathered two-storey building, in its garden of crumbling outhouses and tropical trees, the waters of the Inya Lake glitter in the late morning sun. Families look down on the city from the big wheel in the nearby amusement park and young couples sit on benches holding hands. At night, the restaurants light up along the shore and the traffic noise from the road to the airport goes on all night. [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Australian, November 20, 2010]

On July 20, 1989, about year after hundred were killed in the brutal 1988 crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrations, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested during a protest rally and taken to the house. Eleven truckloads of armed soldiers later showed up, cut her phone lines and prevented her from leaving. Two years later she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize but she couldn't leave her house to receive it. On July, 10, 1995, after six years of house arrest, she was finally allowed to leave.

Speeches at Aung San Suu Kyi’s House in the 1990s

After her release then, Aung San Suu Kyi was largely confined to her house. Her attempts to leave were thwarted in various ways. Once the train carriage she was traveling on was unhooked from the rest of train. On another occasion, her car was blocked and after she refused to get out. Some thugs then literally picked up the car and turned it around.

In the early 1990s people were arrested for taking photos of the house. On the walls outside it were signs that read "No Slowing Down" and "No U-turn". Soldiers were discretely posted outside near a sign in Burmese that read, "The enemy of the army is the enemy of the people." In the mid-1990s, after her release, Aung San Suu Kyi appeared every Saturday and Sunday on her driveway at 4:00pm to address her supporters who stood behind barricades while traffic police directed traffic along University Avenue.

She usually spoke for about an hour, using a microphone, and answered questions that had been dropped off earlier in her mailbox. She seemed relaxed when she spoke, and often cracked jokes that were greeted with rounds of applause and laughter. She often spoke in English for the benefit of the tourists that had gathered to hear her.

Initially the crowds were small, and made up mostly of foreigners. Most Burmese were afraid to come. By the spring of 1996, the crowds were several thousand strong and mostly Burmese. Not long after that, the government decided enough and was enough and prohibited the speeches. The house was then cordoned off and people often couldn’t even drive by and look at the house anymore. Not long after that Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested again. She spent much of the 2000s under house arrest in the house.

Hunger Strikes and Concessions While Aung San Suu Kyi Was Under House Arrest

Aung San Suu Kyi only went on hunger strike once during her detention, but she became severely malnourished. She had no money to buy food for herself and she refused to accept food from the military. "I was very malnourished for about a month or so," she told the New York Times. "I couldn’t get out of bed for a week." [Source: Philip Shenon, New York Times, February 15, 1994]

In 2008, Associated Press reported: “ Aung San Suu Kyi was expected to stop shunning food deliveries after the junta approved several requests, including the right to receive regular mail deliveries and certain foreign news publications, her lawyer said. The apparent concessions came amid growing concerns that Suu Kyi was on a hunger strike to protest her ongoing detention. The 63-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner has refused daily food delivered to her home for over three weeks. "She will most probably accept her food deliveries as some of the conditions she had asked for were smoothed out," her lawyer, Kyi Win, told The Associated Press. [Source: AP, September 12, 2008 |||]

Among the conditions were Suu Kyi's request to be allowed regular mail deliveries from her two sons, who live in Britain, and other family members, Kyi Win said. Until now, delivery was spotty with some mail permitted and some blocked, he said. Suu Kyi was also granted permission to read foreign publications, "including Time, Newsweek, etc.," her lawyer said. She relies on food delivered by her opposition National League for Democracy for sustenance. She lives in a lakeside home in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, with two female companions who help take care of the house. Suu Kyi had demanded greater freedom of movement for the two women, who were previously barred from leaving the home but will now be allowed out during the daytime, the lawyer said. She will also be allowed monthly medical checkups by her personal physician, which the junta had previously promised her but then blocked. |||

Daily Life of Aung San Suu Kyi Under House Arrest

While under house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of her time listening to news broadcasts on the radio, reading and meditating. She lived without a telephone or a computer. Her bugged phone was disconnected. She “patchy electricity” but had no Internet access and virtually no contact with the outside world. She was given food supplies that often did not include fresh produce. On May 2, 2008, when Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, Suu Kyi lost the roof of her house and lived in virtual darkness after losing electricity. She used candles at night as she was not provided any generator set.

Joshua Hammer wrote in The New Yorker, “During her imprisonment, Aung San Suu Kyi developed an unvarying schedule. Waking before dawn, she would meditate, then spend the rest of the morning doing household chores while listening to the BBC and other stations on shortwave radio. “I was listening five to six hours a day. I was more in touch with the news than were many people outside,” she said. After lunch, she devoted the afternoon to reading books that her doctor had procured for her, mostly through contacts at foreign embassies. [Source: Joshua Hammer, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011]

Aung San Suu Kyi told Scott Kraft of the Los Angeles Times, "I felt free when I was under house arrest because it was my choice. I chose to do what I'm doing, and because of that, I found peace within myself. She said that her incarceration was not harsh except for the period when she was malnourished. While under house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi usually got up at around 4:30am and exercised and listened to the Voice of America as well as the BBC on her short wave radio. During her detention she became fond of listening to the Grateful Dead and Bob Marley and enjoyed tuning into the Good Show , a BBC radio show cancelled in 2001 hosted by the disc jockey Dave Lee Travis, once known as “the hairy Cornflake.” She usually went to bed around 9:30pm.

Aung San Suu Kyi told the Australia: "I had regular meditation sessions. I had a lot to do. Really. People seem to be surprised. You want to keep your house clean and tidy - you have to spend some time doing that. And then, of course, reading takes up time and listening to the radio took up a lot of hours every day because I didn't want to miss any of the news about Burma. I listened to the Burmese service on the BBC, VOA, RFA, that was about five or six hours every day. It was a big chunk out of my day but I couldn't afford to miss it. Because any news I missed, I missed - no one was going to come in and fill the gaps for me. So that was a duty." [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Australian, November 20, 2010]

On her house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi told The Australia: "It wasn't all that difficult. I was in my own home. What was I going through? I was simply sitting in my house. I've never been one for going out a lot. I listened to music. I like sketching a bit and so on. I'm a very indoors sort of person, if you like, so it was no great hardship." Then she compared her treatment with the thousands of political prisoners in Burma. "What do you think it would be like for those who have been imprisoned for years and years and years?" she asked. Suu Kyi told the Washington Post:“I had enough to do to keep this house from toppling down. I could listen to the radio, and I had access to books from time to time. Not all the time. [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Australian, November 20, 2010; Lally Weymouth, Washington Post, January 20, 2012]

Aung San Suu Kyi's Visitors During Her Early Years Under House Arrest

During Aung San Suu Kyi's detention her husband and two sons came to visit her on holidays whenever the generals allowed them to get a visa. A small group of doctors and army officers were allowed to see her. One Burmese who had contact with these people told the Washington Post, "She used to exude arrogance. Now she exudes tolerance...She has become serene, more confident. The only regular visitor she had was her Burmese maid.”

The first non-family member allowed by the generals to visit Aung San Suu Kyi was Bill Richardson, then a congressman from New Mexico, New York Times correspondent Philip Shenon and representative of the United Nations who visited her in February 1994. Richardson said Aung San Suu Kyi is "a woman of passion and commitment...who stands for the best ideals of democracy."

Richardson said there was a lot of laughter in her house even where they were about to be arrested. "She asked me if I thought Michael Jordan was going to make it as a baseball player. We made a friendly bet she bet that he would make it and I bet he wouldn't. And hopefully we will see the result of this bet after spring training, and perhaps I can return to collect my bet."

Visitors and People While Aung San Suu Kyi Is Under House Arrest

For a long time her only known visitors were her doctor, who checked on her monthly, and her lawyer. For a while visits by her doctor were limited to once every two months. Later she had two live-in only companionship—her mother-and-daughter assistants, Khin Khin Win and Win Ma Ma. She told the Washington Post: “The first six years I was kept totally alone. The last six years I had two people staying in the house. The first six years really trained me very well.”

On the eve of Aung San Suu Kyi’s 60th birthday, Richard Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The leaders of her political party, many of them retired generals from her father's era, plan to mark her 60th birthday by making large donations of food to Buddhist monasteries. If Suu Kyi sticks to her regimen, she will rise early on her birthday to meditate. She might spend time with the two maids who live in the house and look after her. She is unlikely to have any chocolate, which she loves, or play the piano, which is said to be broken. As always, anyone who approaches Suu Kyi's house will be stopped at police checkpoints, and army photographers will take their pictures before sending them away or arresting them. But if her experience in detention is any guide, Suu Kyi will spend the day with the sense of celebration that comes from standing up for what she believes is right. [Source: Richard Paddock, Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2005]

“Of course, I lost touch with friends and family. That was not possible to continue,” Aung San Suu Kyi told The New Yorker. In 2004, she had 19 members of her party providing security at her house. In December of that year the government told her she had to reduce the number to six. [Source: Reuters]

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Australian, During her years of house arrest “everything, and everyone, that went in and out of the house was searched. Anything that might be regarded as politically suspect was banned.” [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Australian, November 20, 2010]

Hobbies While Aung San Suu Kyi Was Under House Arrest

Most of Aung San Suu Kyi’s afternoons were spent reading. She read and reread many books on Buddhism as well as biographies and autobiographies and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Over the years she told the New York Times she had read hundreds of books— "Politics, philosophy, religion—mostly about Buddhism, but also about other religions." She was particularly interested in reading about the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharial Nehru and Nelson Mandela. "I've read about Mandela and I admire him very much," she told Philip Shenon of the New York Times.

During her first year under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi used to practice the piano nearly everyday. When her neighbors stopped hearing the piano they feared she might be ill or even dead. Once an accomplished pianist, she was done in by Myanmar's muggy heat which deformed her piano. Later she told Shenon she stopped playing because the piano was out of tune and keys stuck. "It's totally out of tune," she said, there are broken strings. My poor old piano." She then joked about her neighbors. "perhaps they were relived," she said, "My piano playing is very rusty, not that I was ever every musical.

When arrested seemed imminent Suu Kyi prepared for her detentions by stockpiling medicine and books in English, French and Burmese. During her last spell of house arrest she requested French history books, novels by John Le Carre, biographies on Winston Churchill and Burmese language books on Buddhism. She told The New Yorker, “I had always intended to read ‘Les Misérables’ in French, and I managed that.”

When asked by the Washington Post if she knew how to use a computer, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “I do. I learned to work on a computer years before I was placed under house arrest. Fortunately I had two laptops when I was under house arrest — one an Apple and one a different operating system. I was very proud of that because I know how to use both systems. I had no contact with the outside world. But I learned how to use different programs — I would make little invitation cards for myself just for fun. Just to learn how to use it. [Source: Lally Weymouth, Washington Post, January 20, 2012]

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Australian, “The thrillers of John le Carre and the detective novels of Georges Simenon were uncontroversial, but surprisingly useful when she was put on trial again last year after a bizarre incident in which an eccentric American well-wisher swam to her house late at night, earning her another 18 months on her sentence. "I found when I was facing this case in court that all these detective novels were a bit of a help," she said. "I knew a lot more about the law." She has produced no prison memoir or volume of political writing. "I didn't write a lot at all because I don't like to - how shall I put it? - I don't like to keep writing which might fall into other people's hands." [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Australian, November 20, 2010]

Meditation, Buddhism and Aung San Suu Kyi’s House Arrest

Aung San Suu Kyi is a Theravada Buddhist. She has said that mediation has helped her relax and focus her inner awareness on her political goals. She told Alan Clements, "I think a lot of us within the organization have been given the opportunity to develop spiritual strength because we have been forced to spend long years by ourselves under detention and in prison.”

Joshua Hammer wrote in The New Yorker: “Meditation proved invaluable in dealing with the “intense irritation and impatience” that she felt toward her captors. “I would think, Why can’t we just get on and do what needs to be done, rather than indulge in all this shilly-shallying?” she said. “Because I listened to the radio many hours every day, I knew what was going on in Burma, the economic problems, the poverty . . . and I’d get impatient and say, ‘Why are we wasting our time in this way?’ ” The impatience, she said, “didn’t last, because I had the benefits of meditation. Even when I was very annoyed, I would know that within twenty-four hours this would have subsided.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011]

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Aung San Suu Kyi found meditation difficult at first, she acknowledged. It wasn’t until her first period of house arrest, between 1989 and 1995, she said, that “I gained control of my thoughts” and became an avid practitioner. Meditation helped confer the clarity to make key decisions. “It heightens your awareness,” she told me. “If you’re aware of what you are doing, you become aware of the pros and cons of each act. That helps you to control not just what you do, but what you think and what you say.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, September 2012 <>]

“As she evolves from prisoner of conscience into legislator, Buddhist beliefs and practices continue to sustain her. “If you see her diet, you realize that she takes very good care of herself, but in fact it is her mind that keeps her healthy,” I’m told by Tin Myo Win, Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal physician. Indeed, a growing number of neuroscientists believe that regular meditation actually changes the way the brain is wired—shifting brain activity from the stress-prone right frontal cortex to the calmer left frontal cortex. “Only meditation can help her withstand all this physical and mental pressure,” says Tin Myo Win. It is impossible to understand Aung San Suu Kyi, or Myanmar, without understanding Buddhism. Yet this underlying story has often been eclipsed as the world has focused instead on military brutality, economic sanctions and, in recent months, a raft of political reforms transforming the country. <>

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Health

Suu Kyi has a chronic stomach problem. She sometimes has a minimal diet of water and a little food. In June 2006 she received hospital treatment for a severe stomach problem and was returned to house arrest when condition improved. After her release from house arrest in 1995 she reportedly injured hr neck and back after falling down some stairs in her house.

In September 2003, Aung San Suu Kyi underwent three hours surgery in a Rangoon hospital for gynecological problems. The operation was a success. After the surgery she was placed under house arrest. CNN reported: “Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi underwent a successful operation for gynecological problems at a hospital in Yangon, her doctor said. Dr Tin Myo Win said the pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate was in excellent health after the procedure, which lasted over three hours. Aung San Suu Kyi has been in detention for more than three months, since a clash between her supporters and a pro-government group. Myanmar's military government has said she is being held in "protective custody" following threats to her life -- a claim that has been rejected by supporters and human rights groups as a sham. The U.S. State Department recently said Suu Kyi was on a hunger strike to protest her detention and warned the Myanmar authorities that they hold "full responsibility for her health." The hunger strike report was later retracted representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross visited her and said that she was eating. A Red Cross official who met with her in July said she was in "good health" and being held in "fair and decent conditions" although he gave no details as to her location. Some reports have said she is being held in a special compound inside Yangon's notorious Insein Jail, a facility which has been condemned by rights groups and past inmates as inhumane. [Source: CNN, September 19, 2003]

During Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial in 2009 there were concerns about her health after she complained she couldn’t sleep because of severe leg cramps. She was also treated for dehydration and low blood pressure. At one point she was so weak her doctor placed her on a drip and ordered she be given food rations. The BBC reported: “The health of jailed Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is improving after she complained of leg cramps and a lack of sleep, her lawyer has said. Ms Suu Kyi had recovered after taking medicine and "can now sleep well", lawyer Nyan Win said after meeting her at the jail where she is being held. Ms Suu Kyi's NLD party on Friday voiced "grave concern" over her health. Shortly before her arrest on 14 May she was treated for dehydration and low blood pressure. [Source: BBC, May 30, 2009]

In April 2010, AFP reported: “ Aung San Suu Kyi was admitted to hospital briefly over concerns about her heart, a Myanmar official said. "Suu Kyi was taken to Yangon General Hospital to check her heart condition for about 45 minutes," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity. He said she returned to her lakeside house, where she is held under house arrest. Suu Kyi's lawyer Nyan Win said he was as yet unaware of the visit, which is thought to be her first to hospital since 2003, although the 64-year-old has monthly medical check ups by a doctor at her home. [Source: AFP, April 11, 2010]

In March 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi fell ill and started vomiting while campaigning in southern Myanmar. Her doctors said the illness was due to exhaustion and hot weather and advised her take some rest. Before that she told The New Yorkerm “My doctor told me that I can’t keep going at this pace.” Tin Myo Win told me that he had been monitoring her blood pressure since her release, and that he had so far given her “eight or nine” injections of “a cocktail drip”—a blend of vitamins, proteins, and glucose—to keep her from collapsing from exhaustion. [Source: Joshua Hammer, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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