The Lady Lives

Twenty years after she was first put under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi is still the inspiration of Burma's would-be opposition.

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.

The NLD won a landslide victory in a 1990 election, but the ruling junta denied the NLD's right to take power, consolidating its stranglehold on the country, imprisoning NLD politicians, harassing NLD members and their families, and banning all other opposition parties. Two decades later, faith in the NLD's power to effect change has crumbled under the aging octogenarian caretakers who run the party from their headquarters in Rangoon. In the past two years, Burmese have watched them fail to take initiative or react fast during September 2007's failed monk-led protests and in the aftermath of last year's Cyclone Nargis, which killed an estimated 140,000 people while the junta dragged its feet.

But Aung San Suu Kyi's staying power manifests in the inspiration she offers to a new generation of activists who are tired of the stagnant politics of a rump NLD that in the past 20 years has brought them no closer to democracy. In her absence from the scene, she has endured as the rallying point for diffuse networks who have begun to displace dreams of toppling the junta from the streets with a bid to prepare the population for a day when the junta falters, through scores of projects in the cities and rice paddies that tread a fine line between social work and politics.

That sentiment echoed throughout my recent travels across the country, where the trial has otherwise met with a mixture of anguish and deep cynicism. The Lady might get five years or another year, Burmese residents told me, often with a shrug; she might be punished with another period of house arrest or a prison sentence (where exactly she might be sent if convicted is the subject of intense speculation in the Rangoon rumor circuit). They've grown accustomed to expecting the worst.

"The whole country is like a jail," a 60-year-old Buddhist abbot told me over tea one recent afternoon, as he wiped off the dust from his spectacles in the dry heat of his Mandalay monastery. "The trial is just political. We don't know about it." To Burmese, he said, it means very little.

Scarred by the memories of past street protests that ended in brutal crackdowns, and empowered last year in the aftermath of the cyclone, when countless Burmese took it upon themselves to dispatch aid to survivors, Burmese have come to accept a new pragmatism. Change, when it comes, will depend on a schism within the military leadership.

And the day the junta falters, "the Lady will lead. But we will lead too. We will organize at the township level," said a Rangoon doctor who recently founded an unofficial nonprofit organization that gathers a shifting crowd of 12 physicians for regular weekend trips to dispatch medicine and free clinical services in ramshackle villages on the outskirts of the city.

"For me, I still see her as my leader," added a 28-year-old woman who works as a teacher for a Rangoon nonprofit that runs courses on civic engagement and governance, "But I don't believe there is only one leader. There will be many individuals. I'm not just waiting for her."

Asked for her thoughts on Aung San Suu Kyi, however, she shut her eyes tightly and said: "Her dedication, her commitment. She left her life for it. I tried it. One day, to be in her shoes -- I stayed in my room. On her birthday. It was too difficult."

Amid the shifting caprices of a regime that lacks any legitimacy in the eyes of its people, Aung San Suu Kyi endures as a constant whose ideas on nonviolent protest and what she calls "loving kindness" carry weight in a culture that is deeply intertwined with Buddhist philosophy. Activists, from the most hard-bitten firebrands to aging intellectuals, long ago assimilated that lesson.

On a recent afternoon, Sun Ray and three activists from separate youth networks traded talk about change at a restaurant. They spoke of inspiration coming from Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution; of Otpor, a Serbian student movement that opposed Slobodan Milosevic; of Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. Conversation hushed whenever a waiter hovered.

Ironically, Burmese acknowledge that Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to be tested beyond the burnishing confines of her prison compound. "If your only influence depends on you being a prisoner," she once said, in a conversation with Alan Clements recorded in The Voice of Hope, "then you have not much to speak of."

I learned of her inspirational power best on a dusty street of mango vendors in the city of Mandalay, where a physician brought out file after file filled with the records of patients he had treated through a nonprofit that has been closely watched by agents since 2004. Inside were snapshots of patients who might once have been sent to a carnival freak show -- a baby with an eye the size of a football, a girl with an overgrown arm, a man lacerated with skin diseases. All were advanced cases of easily treatable diseases that had been left to run their course too far, he said, a sign of the degeneration of healthcare and the terrible poverty of rural Burmese who rarely think to see a doctor until they near death. The files, which fill an entire room, were the best assurance the group had to survive, said the doctor.

After a long conversation about the pathological distress of the country that carefully sidestepped direct political discussion, he walked me to the gate of his villa, and then stopped suddenly. Across the road, a sunset-drenched monk stepped gingerly into a crumbling pagoda.

"Have you read anything by Aung San Suu Kyi?" the doctor asked, fixing me hard. "She says to use your freedom to help the Burmese become free," he said. His eyes filled with tears. "We do what we can."



What the Death of Pakistan's Public Enemy No. 1 Means

If Baitullah Mehsud is really dead, it's great news for Pakistan and the United States, and bad news for the militants.

A Hellfire missile, fired from a CIA-operated drone an hour past midnight Wednesday, Pakistan time, tore Baitullah Mehsud's body into two pieces. He was said to be on a glucose drip -- dispensed by a local paramedic named Saeedullah -- on the rooftop of his in-laws' house in Zangara, South Waziristan, when hell rained down and took several lives, including that of Mehsud and his second wife.

If this eyewitness account -- narrated on the phone by an intelligence operative to journalists based in Peshawar, the provincial capital, were true, then the icon of al Qaeda militants -- ready to kill and die for their cause -- is gone. Back in its December 2007 annual issue, the Time magazine had listed Baitullah Mehsud among "its 100 most influential individuals" around the globe. By then, Mehsud had already declared jihad on the West.

"Our main aim is to finish Britain and the United States and to crush the pride of the non-Muslims. We pray to God to give us the ability to destroy the White House, New York, and London. Very soon, we will be witnessing jihad's miracles," the diminutive militant told the Doha-based Al Jazeera satellite channel in January 2008.

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The radical maverick had carried a $5 million bounty after the U.S. State Department described him as a clear threat to American interests in the region. He stunned many in and outside the country on March 31, 2009, when he owned up to a commando raid and the ensuing bloody siege of a police training academy a day earlier on the outskirts of the eastern city of Lahore. The roughly eight-hour long operation resulted in the deaths of eight policemen and four attackers. Four were arrested.

"We did it as a retaliation for U.S. missile strikes off drones inside the Pakistani territory," said Mehsud, the first such admission he had made personally.

Like most other militants and several Pakistani opposition leaders, Baitullah also bitterly opposed the drone attacks, but finally, he too, fell to Hellfire missiles fired from a pilotless "Reaper" drone. According to local sources, Saeedullah, the paramedic, was a close relative of Mehsud's father-in-law Ikramuddin who had been called in after the diminutive commander complained of weakness resulting from diarrhea and dehydration.

Early in January 2008, Pakistan's security officials and the CIA had also named Mehsud as the prime suspect behind the December 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He harbored foreign fighters, particularly those al Qaeda Central Asians who had fled from the Wana Valley following a commando operation by the local pro-government militant Mullah Nazir. Baitullah also shot into international headlines for his suicide bomber training camps, led by his deputy Qari Hussein and located mostly in and around the Shawaal area between North and South Waziristan. The Pakistani Taliban consider suicide attacks to be "a viable form of self-defense."

All this had turned him into Pakistan's most notorious militant commander, somebody accused of playing into the hands of foreign powers, including the United States and India, to destabilize Pakistan.

The stocky Baitullah, 36, was barely 5.2 feet tall with a less-than-swashbuckling appearance. But he radiated a certain charisma that appealed to people much taller and stronger in physique. Born into a poor ethnic Pashtoon family in the Makeen village of South Waziristan, Mehsud also participated in the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad and later assisted the Afghan Taliban in their fight against the Northern Alliance. During his years of fighting in Afghanistan, he drew inspiration from Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban chief, and of course the likes of Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Mehsud embraced their vision of an Islamic state, based on sharia (as they interpret it).

In September 2008, Mehsud, a known diabetic, married for the second time after the first marriage did not produce any children. Waziristani journalists and supporters also referred to him as the "governor" of the region because of his influence over the Mehsud tribe's areas of the rugged and inhospitable terrain.

Baitullah Mehsud had formed his lethal Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in December 2007 when several tribal commanders became willing to operate under his leadership.

While his supporters believed Baitullah had brought peace to the Waziristan region, his detractors argued that any such peace came at a high price. Like a mafia boss, they say, Mehsud and his lieutenants shook down the populace for protection money. Being Pakistan's most influential Taliban leader, Baitullah had trained and lined up a new cadre of diehard commanders, ready to take on Pakistani security forces in case of any major offensive.

Before Baitullah's death, the TTP comprised about 40 militant commanders with a collective strength of about 25,000 and was considered to be the most lethal of the Taliban outfits in Pakistan's wily regions bordering Afghanistan.

In May 2007, the group caused great embarrassment to the Pakistani Army when it ambushed and took at least 250 officers and soldiers hostage before releasing them in late August after arduous talks, and most probably payment of heavy ransom.

In July 2009, Mehsud's men again caused great embarrassment to Pakistani security forces when they sniped at a military convoy, killing about a dozen soldiers, including two officers. Pakistani security forces, the police and the paramilitary, had remained TTP's special targets; since 2006, Mehsud and allies have killed close to 3,000 policemen and paramilitary security personnel, including during a commando raid on the police academy in Lahore in March 2009.

Baitullah Mehsud's abrupt disappearance from the scene has shocked his followers. Although no panic is likely to ensue after his exit from the militant scene, the psychological impact on the rank and file of the TTP is likely enormous.

Until recently, most analysts following the al Qaeda inspired militancy in the region had agreed that radical outfits like that of Mehsud appeared increasingly united and much better networked than ever before, and thus posed a bigger threat to the region and the world.

That is why, analysts opined, Mehsud's death could dent the "unity of command" that had existed under his leadership. All those groups that had surrendered their regional identities and merged into the central TTP command structure might splinter again if the race to succeed Mehsud grows contentious.

And even if that succession battle proceeds smoothly, the message the lethal drone attack has sent across the ranks of the militants is loud and clear: No group or person challenging the writ of one or many states will go unpunished.

Until now, the Pakistani Army establishment had accused the United States of sparing Baitullah Mehsud by design. Defense and intelligence officials claimed that since Mehsud was inflicting damage on the Pakistani security apparatus, the Americans were refraining from a conclusive action against the warlord. The United States was accusing Pakistan of using him as a bogeyman, or so read the argument. In this way, Baitullah Meshud remained a source of friction and distrust between the American and Pakistani security establishments.

Now, hopefully, the drone attack and its consequences will most probably wipe out that distrust, remove the mutual friction and pave the way for closer U.S.-Pakistani coordination and cooperation in the hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda militants.

Whether that would mean taking on Afghan militants such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmetyar, and Mullah Omar and their close associates -- all the elements that are inflicting damage on the U.S.-NATO-Afghan forces -- is an altogether different issue.

What is certain for now is that with the symbol of terror Baitullah Mehsud gone, also gone is the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan's unity of command. That, in turn is going to shake up the central command structure and make the group vulnerable to pressure on both sides of the Durand Line.

AFP/Getty Images