Image: Suu Kyi supporters in Paris
Remy de la Mauviniere  /  AP
Demonstrators show their support to Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi during a gathering near the Myanmar embassy in Paris on Tuesday.
updated 8/11/2009 3:17:43 PM ET 2009-08-11T19:17:43

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is back where the ruling generals want her: inside a crumbling mansion, lonely and isolated from the world.

But a fleeting emergence into public view showed that Suu Kyi's steely grace and charisma, along with her popularity, are intact. She remains a potentially potent force for change in a country that has seen virtually no deviation from harsh military rule for nearly half a century.

For now, the 64-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate, arguably the world's most famous prisoner, will likely return to her daily meditation, listening to radio news broadcasts and waiting for the occasional censored mail, including letters from two sons she last saw a decade ago.

What continues to keep Suu Kyi tenacious and focused on bringing democracy to Myanmar are her deep Buddhist faith, rigorous self-discipline and the guiding influence of her parents, those close to her say. The only apparent chink in her armor is a fondness for dark chocolate.

Although set within the teeming city of Yangon, her police-ringed home might just as well be on another continent, removed from a downtrodden populace and a junta that extended her 14-year detention for another 18 months on Tuesday.

Suu Kyi was found guilty of violating the terms of her house arrest by harboring an American, John Yettaw, who swam across a lake to sneak uninvited into her compound. The 53-year-old man was sentenced Tuesday to seven years in prison with hard labor.

During her 86-day trial, diplomats and supporters were impressed by Suu Kyi's grace under pressure, rebuking those who called Yettaw a fool, sharing her birthday chocolate cake with prison guards and thanking envoys for their support.

'Looked in remarkable shape'
"Despite almost two decades of extraordinary pressure — more than half of it in detention — and agonizing personal sacrifices, she looked in remarkable shape," wrote British Ambassador Mark Canning. "Calm, dignified, upright, exuding quiet authority but no hint of bitterness toward the prosecution side."

Video: Convicted Josef Silverstein, professor emeritus at Rutgers University and an expert on Myanmar, also called Burma, says that while she may never lead the country, she will always be influential.

"Don't write her off. If she is allowed to live, she has an important role to play in Burma's drama," he says.

Suu Kyi has sometimes been described as an accidental leader, having returned to her homeland in 1988 after two decades abroad to nurse her dying mother just as an uprising erupted against the military regime.

Daughter of the country's independence hero, Gen. Aung San, Suu Kyi was thrust into the forefront of the 1988 demonstrations until the military crushed them brutally and clamped her under house arrest.

But as a teenager Suu Kyi had developed an intense interest in her father, who was gunned down by political rivals when she was just a toddler, seemingly absorbing his fierce sense of nationalist mission, military-like discipline and a stubborn streak.

Suu Kyi lived with her mother in India, attended Oxford University, then worked for the United Nations in New York and Bhutan.

Despite the long absence, Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said Suu Kyi had planned to come back one day to "complete her father's unfinished work, building a democratic country."

Shaped by parents, and meditation
"While Suu Kyi's extreme fortitude can be considered an aspect of her natural character, without question her life has been shaped by her parentage," says Justin Wintle, author of the Suu Kyi biography "Perfect Hostage."

Close friends expect this grit to persist through the next phase of her incarceration in her mother's once grand two-story mansion, now gone to seed.

According to one, Su Su Lwin, Suu Kyi adheres to a strict daily routine, rising about 5 a.m., doing meditation and exercise, reading a great deal.

"She doesn't do anything excessively. She lives a very simple life," Su Su Lwin says. "She eats very little. She does like dark chocolate but even that she eats with a limit. She loves to dress up very nicely and neatly but she doesn't like extravagance."

Before her trial, Suu Kyi wasn't allowed telephone or Internet communications, but could get newspapers and listen to the radio. With no satellite dish on her compound, she was only able to watch state-run television.

Her contact with the outside world is unlikely to increase.

She last saw sons Alexander and Kim in 2000, the year after her husband — British academic Michael Aris — died of cancer. The sons, now both in their 30s, have been stripped of their Myanmar citizenship and barred from the country.

Suu Kyi was first arrested in 1989 and barred from contesting general elections called by the junta in May 1990. But her name inspired the opposition campaign and her party scored a landslide victory that the regime never recognized.

Suu Kyi has been offered an exit from her isolation: the junta gave her permission to leave the country when her husband died. But she refused, fearing she would never be allowed to return.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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