On April 1, voters in Burma are set to take part in an election that could see opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi elected to parliament -- with the tacit consent of a government trying to prove its professed reformist credentials. If she wins, it will be the latest breathtaking twist in a long and improbable journey that has taken her to the Nobel Peace Prize and beyond.
Today Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the world's most famous pro-democracy crusaders, an exemplar of moral courage in the defiance of tyranny. But she didn't start off that way. When activists opposed to the ruling military dictatorship in Burma chose her as their leader in 1988, there was little that distinguished her aside from her illustrious ancestry: Her father, Aung San, had freed Burma from British colonial rule after World War II. But she soon showed that she was more than just her father's daughter.
In the following exclusive excerpt from The Lady and the Peacock, a new biography by British journalist Peter Popham, we witness the incident that first made her a legend. In 1988, a nationwide uprising against the military regime prompted a bloody crackdown by the generals. The following year, they tried to shore up their crumbling legitimacy by allowing for a national election. Aung San Suu Kyi and her nascent National League for Democracy (NLD) decided to participate. On the campaign trail, she and her followers (including her confidante, Ma Thanegi, whose diary provides the basis for much of Popham's account), soon found themselves confronting the guns of the junta. In April 1989, the contest of wills finally came to a head in a town called Danubyu:
More party members were being arrested: The persecution of democratic activists was already growing familiar. And, as Ma Thanegi noted, word of the growing discord between students and their elders inside the party had reached the outside world.
"April 3: In evening met with families of NLD members arrested in Mon state . . . Ma Ma [a familiar reference to ASSK] saw Asiaweek article about split between students and NLD . . . Someone denied having sent out an open letter about the split . . ."
The next day Suu, Ma Thanegi and their convoy were on the road again, back to the Irrawaddy Delta for the fourth time since January -- heading for the encounter which would imprint forever an image of almost unbelievable courage on Suu's name.