I photographed Aung San Suu Kyi in summer 2000 in Burma (Myanmar). At the time, it was extremely rare for Westerners to see her, much less meet and photograph her. This is the surprising and frightening story behind the photo.
Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?
Aung San Suu Kyi is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, leader of the National League for Democracy, and the democratically elected leader of Myanmar. Her father, General Aung San, was the first leader of Burma’s independence movement and was assassinated in 1947.
Incredibly, she later was elected State Counselor of Myanmar. Since then, she came under fire internationally for her treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority. She was then deposed by a military coup in 2021 and sentenced to jail.
A chance meeting in Burma (Myanmar)
I traveled to Burma with my girlfriend Lisa and a friend named Paula in summer 2000. We were in the capital city of Yangon. We were returning from the Martyrs Day events at the Arzani Mausoleum commemorating General Aung San’s death. Along the way, 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. They told us that Aung San Suu Kyi would be arriving in 15 minutes!
A rare opportunity
Aung San Suu Kyi had previously been under house arrest for six years. At the time we met her, she had limited freedom and could not leave Yangon.
The crowd enthusiastically waved us in. They led us to some white resin seats just behind ambassadors from the United States, Britain, and Japan. We sat in front of members of the international press. However, we noticed that many cameras warily followed our every move.
Aung San Suu Kyi arrives
“The Lady” arrived to much commotion. Several speakers gave speeches in Burmese. They also handed us some Burmese literature. We managed to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi briefly — an incredible opportunity, given her limited freedom. She scanned all of us and said, “You are very brave for coming here.”
After the meeting, 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 relationship with this country.” We knew that, nodding glumly. As we exited the meeting, many people with cameras started taking photos of us. Their cameras followed us ominously as we walked.
“We’re being followed!!”
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. Lisa and Paula commented that this was just like some sort of bad movie. However, this was real life.
Our taxi driver was visibly nervous. We finally asked the terrified driver to drop us off at the U.S. Embassy. We eagerly scrambled inside to report to the Marine on duty that we were being followed. He replied, remaining stoic, telling us that others had reported being followed before.
We sat for a while in the Embassy. I was so nervous that my right leg was jittering, bouncing up and down involuntarily. After some minutes, we left the Embassy. The man in the white car was still there. He rolled behind us on the street slowly, ominously.
Mixed drinks and burgers to calm our nerves
We decided to walk to an expensive hotel called The Strand. There, we ordered mixed drinks and burgers to calm our nerves. For some reason, we also felt that they might not come in there. And they didn’t.
After feeling calmer, we walked back out, looking around. We no longer saw the white car. Where was he? Why did he drive off? Were 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.
“Surely they’re on to us!”
The next day, Paula left. However, her phone call from Singapore several hours later. We thought the hotel phones might be bugged. Therefore, we had created a sort of “code” so that Paula could impart what had happened. And what she said left us in shock. The airport officials, who had her name on a list, had searched her belongings. They confiscated all her film, books and cassettes. Luckily, she was allowed to go.
We were to leave by plane the following day.
But we thought, “If the Burmese military identified her, surely they’re on to us!”
Hiding our rolls of film
I wanted to leave Burma with at least a few rolls of our film. I purchased 10 rolls of film. Then, I shot 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. One of the rolls in my shoe contained this photo of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“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.
Our nervous wait at the airport
Still completely dark, we arrived early that morning at the dimly-lit airport. We checked our luggage in and sat nervously in the waiting room for two hours watching Bon Jovi videos play on their large screen. We couldn’t relax until the plane had lifted off the ground. This was 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.
A short window of time that we could have met her
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 10 years — before finally being forced to return to her house. The military then raided the NLD headquarters, carting away documents. We had somehow met her in this small window of time.
You may find out more about my 2000 trip to Burma and India here.
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