Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. Photo by Ken Lee of http://www.kenleephotography.com. This is a scan from a 4×6 print from a $100 CanoScan, so please cut me some slack! This photo has appeared in several magazines and was used for years for the Burma Forum Los Angeles website, a Burma democracy support group.
Like Meeting Gandhi
Meeting Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in 2000 was like meeting a modern-day Gandhi. Because of the front page headlines of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton going to Burma (Myanmar) and meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, I was inspired to post this photo and recollection of meeting “The Lady”
Memorable But Terrifying
Meeting Aung San Suu Kyi was both memorable and frightening. This is what I wrote in my Eleven Shadows Burma and India travel blog in 2000:
Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner, leader of the National League for Democracy, and the democratically elected leader of Myanmar. After being under house arrest for six years, she now has limited freedom but cannot leave Yangon. Her father, General Aung San, was the first leader of Burma’s independence movement and was assassinated in 1947.
While returning from the Martyrs Day events at the Arzani Mausoleum commemorating General Aung San’s death, we saw a large crowd outside a building adorned with large red banners with Burmese words and English words saying “National League for Democracy”. Intrigued, we wandered over and were told that Aung San Suu Kyi would be arriving in fifteen minutes. The crowd enthusiastically waved us in, and we were seated in white resin seats just behind ambassadors from the United States, Britain, and Japan, and in front of members of the international press. Many cameras warily followed our every move.
“The Lady” arrived to much commotion. Several speakers gave speeches in Burmese, and Burmese literature was handed to us. Paula managed to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi briefly – an incredible opportunity, given her limited freedom.
After the meeting, as the gravity of our situation continued to sink in, we walked out with one of the U.S. embassy employees to make ourselves feel safer. “I have no control over what happens here,” he had said. “We have no diplomatic relationsip with this country.” We knew that, nodding glumly. As we exited the meeting, many people with cameras started taking photos of us, their cameras following as we walked.
We quickly flagged down a taxi. However, a man in a white car followed our every turn. We changed directions several times, but the car continued following. We finally asked the terrified driver to drop us off at the U.S. Embassy, eagerly scrambling inside to report to the Marine on duty that we were being followed. He said that others had reported being followed before, but remained stoic.
After some minutes, we left the Embassy. The man in the white car was still there, and rolled behind us on the street slowly, ominously. We decided to walk to an expensive hotel called The Strand, ordering mixed drinks and burgers to calm our nerves. We walked back out, looking around. We no longer saw the white car. Where was he? Why did he drive off? Where others following? We walked the wrong way down one-way streets and traipsed through stores to exit the back side, trying to make certain that we were no longer being followed.
The next day, Paula left. However, her phone call from Singapore several hours later, in a sort of “code” that we had agreed upon before, left us in cold shock. The airport officials, who had her name on a list, had demanded to search her belongings, confiscating all her film, books, and cassettes. Luckily, she had not been detained. But we thought, “If the Burmese military identified her, surely they’re on to us!”
I wanted to escape with at least a few rolls of our film. I purchased ten rolls of film, shooting one or two pictures in each before rewinding the film. I then placed these rolls in my lead-lined bag as a decoy. Lisa and I hid the rest of the film in every crevice of our backpacks, including dirty socks, aspirin bottles, shirts, shoes, artwork. I even jammed a roll in each of my shoes, which caused great pain as the day wore on. “What if they get really upset that we’re hiding this?” Lisa asked. But still we did it. We had nothing of value, nothing inflammatory, and felt odd to hide such innocuous photos from the military. I locked my backpack several different ways and hoped for the best.
Still completely dark, we arrived early that morning at the dimly-lit airport, checked our luggage in, and sat nervously in the waiting room for two hours watching Bon Jovi videos. We couldn’t relax until the plane had lifted off the ground, one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard.
“You have no idea how happy we are to be in India!” I exclaimed to the Indian immigration official.
Postscript: A month after we left Myanmar, the military prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from going to an NLD youth rally only 30 km from Yangon. Aung San Suu Kyi remained in her car for about 11 days—the fourth such stand-off in the last ten years—before finally being forced to return to her house. The military then raided the NLD headquarters, carting away documents. Burma continues to be one of the most brutal regimes in the world while the world stands idly by, issuing endless litanies of diplomatic terms like “deeply concerned,” “closely watching,” “monitoring the situation,” “turning a new page,” and “forcefully urging dialogue.”
Equipment: Nikon N70 film camera, 70-300mm Nikkor lens. Fuji Velvia 400; scanned from a 4×6 print on a $100 CanoScan scanner.