On my first trip to Burma about a year ago, a young lawyer, in the cramped safety of an apartment that she shared with her aging parents, handed me a thumb-sized, silvery mug shot of a youthful Aung San Suu Kyi. "I could be arrested for carrying this," she said, with a touch with mischief. Then she buried the photo back into her cloth bag as fast as it had shot out.
Dissidence, visitors to Burma learn quickly, often begins with reverence for the embattled opposition leader whom Burmese refer to, in whispers, simply as "the Lady."
Aung San Suu Kyi burst onto the political stage almost by chance in the midst of 1988's mass student-led pro-democracy protests as the charismatic, eloquent daughter of Burma's martyred independence hero. In the years since, she has grown into a lone object of trust among Burmese, repeatedly credited as the sole figure capable of bridging deep divides -- one fomented since a 1962 coup between the military and the civilian population, and the another between the Burmese majority and the country's restive ethnic minorities.
Far from diminishing her star, the military junta's two-decades-old tactic of repeatedly isolating her from the masses by confining her to house arrest has only served to amplify her status as a beacon of resistance.
Perhaps, paradoxically, that begins to explain the general inaction in the streets in response to a protracted trial that is part farce and part tragedy, a reminder both of the military junta's penchant for Kafkaesque distortions of justice and its intransigence in the face of widespread international condemnation. To the outside world, small glimmers of hope appeared in the rare invitations meted out on a select few days to a handful of foreign diplomats and well-connected local journalists to sit in on the proceedings. The verdict was due in late July but instead has been adjourned to August 11, a decision that comes as little surprise to Burmese who long ago learned to turn their gaze away from the repeatedly stalled proceedings in disgust.
Burmese, in short, haven't been fooled.
A small crowd of stalwarts from Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have braved security forces and the likely risk of future arrest to hold a silent vigil outside the blackening walls of Insein prison, where the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has languished on trial for the past 2½ months. They are the most visible sign of activists in the ragged and diffuse semi-underground opposition who have otherwise struggled to foment demonstrations in the streets or spark small campaigns of symbolic protest. Some have distributed pamphlets or photos of Aung San Suu Kyi, and some have tried to trigger spontaneous marches with what they call "flash strikes," unfurling banners in crowded markets in the hopes that people will follow.
But a visitor would be hard-pressed to find these rare moments of defiance amid the silent, scarred streets of Burma's cities.
"People won't demonstrate because they are too afraid. But if you ask people who do they believe? Aung San Suu Kyi," a 27-year-old clandestine activist, code-named Sun Ray, told me. He had recently returned to Rangoon from his rural hide-out to launch a "yellow campaign" -- in honor of a color he said was favored by the Lady -- through his own semi-underground network. A few months earlier, he had splintered off from the youth branch of the NLD in part because of his belief that the party lacked force.