Image: Suu Kyi, Gambari
AP
U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari shakes hands with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at a state guesthouse on Tuesday, in Yangon, Myanmar. It was a rare break from Suu Kyi's house arrest.
updated 10/4/2007 5:35:51 PM ET 2007-10-04T21:35:51

Locked inside her walled home and not seen in public for four years, democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi has been like a ghost to the people of Myanmar. But she can cause a sensation just peeking out from behind her iron gate.

A blurry photograph of Suu Kyi behind stone-faced riot police during the recent protests against Myanmar's military junta was splashed on front pages around the world and gave a surge of hope to countrymen demanding an end to 45 years of rule by generals.

By praying with monks who marched despite the threat of bullets, by silently acknowledging demonstrators shouting her name, by blessing with her steely gaze the biggest anti-junta protests in two decades, the tiny woman nicknamed "the Lady" has become more of a democratic icon than ever.

Suu Kyi has been compared to Nelson Mandela, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Supporters mark her birthday with candlelight vigils, U2 penned the song "Walk On" in her honor, and everyone from first lady Laura Bush to comedian Jim Carrey has championed her cause.

"Aung San Suu Kyi is not only the inspiration for the Burmese to bear their ongoing suffering ... She alone continues to command the moral and political legitimacy of the nation," said Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at Australian National University.

Still, being under house arrest for almost 12 of the past 18 years has taken a toll. The long years of isolation, the lack of contact with family, friends and colleagues, the crushing of the latest protests clearly are weighing on her.

'She is the biggest threat'
In photos taken after her two meetings with U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari this week, the 62-year-old Suu Kyi appeared exhausted and discouraged, unable even to fake a smile for being allowed the rare privilege of talking to an outside guest.

But even though she is locked away, the very mention of her name is said to throw the head of the junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, into fits of rage.

"She is not just the opposition ... She is a symbol," said David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "She is the biggest threat."

Hundreds of riot police are now stationed around the clock outside her sparsely furnished, lakeside home in Yangon. The road in front is closed to traffic. Two navy boats patrol the lake.

Access to the compound is mostly limited to her two aides and her doctor, who makes monthly stops. Groceries are dropped off with security guards.

Suu Kyi has no phone or Internet access. Her two grown sons, Alexander and Kim, live abroad and are denied entry into the country. It is not known whether she has ever seen her young grandchildren, Kim's children Jasmine and Jamie.

Her husband, British academic Michael Aris, died from cancer in 1999 after being blocked from seeing her for three years. Suu Kyi could have left Myanmar to see her family, but she feared she would not be allowed to return.

Her days, according to U.N. staffers who have been allowed to meet with her, follow a simple routine. She rises early to meditate and spends much of her time reading books — mostly politics, philosophy and Buddhism — and listening to the BBC and Voice of America on the radio.

She likes music, occasionally playing classical music on her piano and listening to everything from the Grateful Dead to Bob Marley.

Lives on meager rations
Her two-story house, once a grand mansion where her mother lived, has fallen into disrepair. She largely lives hand-to-mouth, depending on book royalties to buy her meager rations. Money from her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize went into a foundation to educate Myanmar's children.

"She is completely devoted to the cause of democracy and human rights," said Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, a U.N. official who met with Suu Kyi seven times from 2000 to 2003. "I think she survives all the duress because she has a great spiritual quality ... She doesn't worry about herself."

Her critics, including some former members of her National League for Democracy Party, call her uncompromising and principled to a fault. They point to 1993, when the junta organized a gathering to draw up a new constitution. She barred the party from participating, which some members said denied them a chance to influence the document.

Despite being the daughter of Burma's founder, Gen. Aung San, Suu Kyi fell into politics almost by accident.

In 1988, she rushed home from England to care for her dying mother, then was swept up in mass demonstrations. She turned into a rallying figure against the junta amid clashes that killed at least 3,000 protesters.

"I could not, as my father's daughter, remain indifferent to all that is going on," she told some 500,000 people at the Shwedagon Pagoda that year, a moment that cemented her inspiring presence as a leader. "This national crisis could in fact be called the second struggle for national independence."

The aftermath was swift and furious. The junta detained Suu Kyi, then barred her from entering a 1990 election. Her party still won in a landslide, but the generals refused to honor the results.

Despite the years of harsh treatment, Suu Kyi says she would be open to compromise with the generals and insists her quest is not about becoming the next leader of Myanmar.

"I don't want to see a new personality cult develop," she has said. "I have a vision of a country where we can sort out our problems by talking with one another."

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