Beyond Rangoon: Life of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

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Dateline NBC (7:00 pm ET), August 13, 2000, Sunday

Announcer: From our studios in Rockefeller Center, here is Jane Pauley.

JANE PAULEY: Good evening. 'Give me liberty or give me death,' Patrick Henry's famous ultimatum. How many of us have taken it to heart? Tonight, the story of an extraordinary woman whose dreams of liberty forced an inconceivable choice between a life with her family or a fight for freedom for her country. She could not have both. And you'll find out why in this exclusive story that DATELINE went undercover to get, her first broadcast interview in 11 years. She may remind you how precious freedom is and how high its price can be. Here's Hoda Kotbe.

HODA KOTBE reporting: (Voiceover) It's called "the golden land," pagodas glinting under a glowing sun, smiling gracious people, a kaleidoscope of searing colors. An exotic world where men wear skirts and women smoke cigars. This is Burma, where nothing is quite what it seems. You see this is also Burma, land of fear.

(Friendly sites of Burma; men walking down street wearing skirts; woman smoking; citizens of Burma; Burmese soldier; Burmese war scenes)

Ms. AUNG SAN SUU KYI: There still are very many people in Burma who are very frightened. They have to get over that fear.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) This delicate yet steely woman is Aung San Suu Kyi. In Burma, she's a symbol of hope, an icon of unflinching courage. And to stay here, as you'll see, she's had to make an agonizing choice. (Various photos of Aung San Suu Kyi)

KOTBE: You sacrificed a lot of things. Has it been worth the fight?

Ms. KYI: Oh, yes. Besides, I don't look at it as a sacrifice, it's a choice. If you choose to do something, then you shouldn't say it's a sacrifice, because nobody forced you to do it.

(Voiceover) Internationally, she's considered a legitimate leader of Burma. But here, she lives in a prison without bars. The virtual captive of a military dictatorship the US government calls brutal and repressive, a regime accused of slaughtering civilians and jailing an estimated 1,000 political prisoners. Until recently, many of the universities in Burma, once hotbeds of unrest, were closed. For most, the Internet is illegal. Even owning a cell phone can mean jail time.

(Kyi; Kyi speaking before large group; Kyi; rioting scene; Burmese university; computer; cell phone)

KOTBE: You can be imprisoned for having a fax machine. You could be imprisoned for saying the wrong thing against the regime?

Ms. KYI: You can be imprisoned for doing the right thing. Even acting in accordance with the law can be a crime in the eyes of the authorities, if they don't agree with what you are doing.

KOTBE: No foreign journalist can officially interview Aung San Suu Kyi. Many who've tried have been interrogated, strip searched and deported. So we went to Burma as tourists. Reaching her was like a scene from a secret agent movie. There were decoy cars, phone calls in code, hidden tapes. Only this was all too real.

(Voiceover) We brought only amateur video cameras. Still, we were followed and photographed. And everywhere we looked, the army was there. We met Aung San Suu Kyi at a secret location. Her phone lines are cut. She can't receive mail. The military intelligence keeps her under constant surveillance.

(Hoda Kotbe in Burma; scenes of Burma from video camera; Burmese location; soldiers)

Ms. KYI: You know, they've closed off the road to my house. There are barricades on either side of my garden. So I can't really go out without their knowing. And every time I go out, I'm followed by two cars and two motorbikes. They're outside now sitting and waiting for me to come out.

KOTBE: Are they just trying to wear you down mentally?

Ms. KYI: If they're trying to do that--do that, they're not succeeding.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) It's this unshakable spirit that has given hope to millions of her countrymen. It's a sense of purpose instilled from birth. Her father was General Aung San, the founder of modern Burma. He had grand dreams of democracy, but he was assassinated when Aung San Suu Kyi was only two.

Her mother was a diplomat, known for her dedication to public service, which she taught to her children. At first, it seemed their daughter had chosen to lead a private, quiet life. She fell in love with an Englishman, Michael Aris, a professor. They married in 1972 and eventually settled in England. The couple had two sons, Alexander and Kim. For 16 years, she was a wife and mother.

(Kyi; General Aung San; young photograph of Kyi; family photo; Kyi; Kyi with Michael Aris; wedding photograph; family photograph)

Ms. KYI: It was peaceful. It was academic. It was a family life. Just a normal life where you're free to do what you want to do.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) But one day, her quiet life would change forever with a phone call from Burma. Her mother had suffered a stroke. She returned home and found a country in turmoil. It was 1988, millions of Burmese, lead by students, took to the streets, calling for democracy. The regime cracked down hard, firing on crowds of protesters. Yuzana Khin was one of them.

(Kyi; individuals of Burma; unrest in Burma)

Ms. YUZANA KHIN: We never thought the government would do that to us. You know, we always believed the military is for us.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) It's estimated that thousands of civilians were killed. Aung San Suu Kyi was swept up in the demonstrations. The lessons taught by her parents came flooding back. Then, with a speech remembering those who died, this wife and mother was transformed into political leader. (Footage of demonstration in Burma; Kyi)

Ms. KHIN: When I was watching at her and listening to her, my tears burst. I cried. I knew at once, yes, you know, 'Yes, this is the one that we can work with. This is the one that we can trust.'

KOTBE: (Voiceover) Millions were there to see the change, but for Aung San Suu Kyi, life didn't stand still. Soon, her family would have to return to England to resume work and school. She decided to stay behind. She couldn't have foreseen how long their separation would prove to be. In Burma, she helped launch a political rebellion. It would put her in great danger. In this true life scene from the movie "Beyond Rangoon," her first confrontation with government troops.

(Kyi among individuals in Burma; Kyi before group; demonstration in Burma; clip from "Beyond Rangoon")

Ms. KYI: You know, there was nobody who broke rank.

KOTBE: A guy saying 'Get out of the middle of the road or I'm going to shoot.' Were you frightened?

Ms. KYI: You really don't have much time to be frightened on--on occasions like that. You have to think fast.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) An officer and his line of men trained their guns on her and her group. She faced them down. But in 1989, the ruling generals clamped down. They sentenced Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest.

(Clip from "Beyond Rangoon;" home; soldiers; Kyi)

Ms. KYI: I was supposed to have been a threat to the peace and security of the state, or words to that effect.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) She was locked up, confined to her house and garden. Guards posted at her front door.

(Kyi in garden; soldiers)

Ms. KYI: They cut off my phone. They actually brought a pair of scissors and cut off the wires and carried my phone away.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) Internal pressure and international scrutiny had prompted the regime to call a general election, their first. Aung San Suu Kyi's party won more than 80 percent of the vote. But the regime threw out the results. She wasn't released. Under house arrest, the weeks stretched into years.

(Individuals during election; Burmese soldiers; home; Kyi)

Ms. KYI: I was not allowed out of the house at all, and nobody was allowed into the house to see me. I was completely cut off from the outside world.

(Voiceover) She says malnutrition caused her hair to fall out. Back home in England, her husband, Michael Aris, looked after their sons. Family friend Peter Carey lived nearby.

(Home where Kyi was held captive; Aris with sons; Peter Carey)

Mr. PETER CAREY: He was obviously, living quite--in a way, quite a solitary existence. And--and I could feel the poignancy of that. The warm heart of the Aris household, was--it was no longer there.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) Her sons were only 12 and 16 when their mother was locked up. (Photograph of Kyi's sons)

Ms. KYI: (Voiceover) I hoped that they wouldn't miss me. They support me but I think they have paid the price.

(Kyi; Kyi's sons)

Mr. CAREY: When you come back and you have a trauma about homework or you come back and you want to discuss all the issues of being a teen-ager and growing up, and your mother is--is miles away in Rangoon, obviously it's--it's tough.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) Her youngest was allowed a visit. She hadn't seen him in 2 1/2 years. (Kyi's young son)

Ms. KYI: I didn't recognize him. I would not have recognized him if I'd met him on the street because a teen-ager looks quite different from a--from a little boy.

KOTBE: Did you think 'What have I missed? I missed two years and seven months of watching him grow up.'

Ms. KYI: Well, there are lots of things that one thinks about.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) Her family told us she finds the separation too painful to talk about.

(Kyi; photo of Kyi's sons)

Mr. U. TIN WINN: She--she--she didn't want to go back to--to--to her kids.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) U. Tin Winn is the ambassador to the United States of the union of Myanmar, the name Burma is called by its military government.

(U. Tin Winn; country flag)

KOTBE: What kind of government would put her in her house and sort of lock her away from everybody when she has two kids?

Mr. WINN: She was under restriction in accordance with the--with the existing law.

KOTBE: You don't see that as much of a hardship?

Mr. WINN: She have an easy life. I think as compared to being in the prison or in--in the solitary confinement, it is a very easy, it's a lenient, and even convenient for her.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) In 1991, still under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her son Alexander accepted on her behalf.

(Presentation of Nobel Peace Prize to son Alexander)

ALEXANDER: In pursuit of a democratic Burma.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) The government wanted her to leave the country. She refused. Her Sentence stretched to six years. Six years, locked up inside of her house. In all that time, her family was allowed only three visits.

(Kyi; home; family photograph)

KOTBE: The idea of choosing your life, your country, your people, and your family, most people would never have to do that.

Ms. KYI:
My choice had always been made, you know, it was my country first. But I think, people should not be made to choose between their private lives and their political beliefs.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) But soon a tragedy in her family would put that choice to the test. In 1995, the regime finally released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. But she was confined to Rangoon, the capital. When she tried to leave the city, to meet with supporters, the army blocked her car. She spent six days on a bridge, refusing to move. Finally, she gave up and returned to Rangoon. There, she defied the authorities and gave speeches over her garden wall. Rain or shine, her supporters came.

(Photograph of Aris with sons; Kyi among individuals in Burma; parked car on bridge; street of Rangoon; Kyi speaking before group in her garden)

Ms. KYI:
And some of them came with little bags with a change of clothes, in case they were taken away to prison.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) They were always under the watchful eye of the military intelligence. It was a war of nerves. Her very presence, a thorn in the side of the regime. Then, last year, tragedy struck. Her husband, Michael Aris, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Family friend Peter Carey says the years of separation had taken their toll.

(Man with camera surveying scene; Kyi with soldier; Aris)

He was very, very drained and tired by the burdens which he bore, and he bore it with great fortitude.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) Michael Aris was dying. He applied for a visa to Burma. His family says he wanted to die in the arms of his wife. His visa was denied. Instead, the military regime encouraged Aung San Suu Kyi to fly to her husband's side.

(Aris; photo of Kyi with Aris; soldier)

Ms. KYI: The regime took this as an opportunity for trying to get me out of the country. Everybody knows that once they got me out of the country, they wouldn't have allowed me to come back in again.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) A wrenching dilemma. One she had eerily predicted in a letter to Michael Aris even before they married.


KOTBE: (Voiceover) "I only ask one thing. That should my people need me, you would help me do my duty by them. Sometimes I am beset by fears that circumstance might tear us apart, just when we are so happy in each other." It seems as if you always knew somewhere inside you, you knew that this day might come.

Ms. KYI: I had been brought up by my mother to--with a very strong sense of duty towards my people and my country, so I was always aware of that.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) She never saw her husband again. Michael Aris died on March 27, 1999. His widow said, 'I have been so fortunate to have such a wonderful husband. Nothing can take that away from me.' She had made a heartbreaking choice in the name of democracy.

(Photo of Aris; family photographs)

Mr. CAREY: Burma will be free. And Suu will be the president of Burma.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) In 1992, you talk about democracy, in 1994, you talk about the fight for democracy, in '96, the fight for democracy. It's the year 2000.

(KYI speaking before various groups)

KOTBE: Do you feel fed up?

Ms. KYI: Democracy is not perfect and I think you have to keep working at it. So unless my--my lifetime is unexpectedly short, I certainly will see democracy come to Burma.

KOTBE: Do you ever see a day when Aung San Suu Kyi would be the leader of your country?

Mr. WINN: I--I--I don't think so. I don't think so.

KOTBE: What do you think of her?

Mr. WINN: She's just a housewife.

KOTBE: Just a housewife?

Mr. WINN: Just a housewife. Nothing more than that.

KOTBE: (Voiceover) A housewife, maybe, but one with a Nobel Peace Prize who's commanding the world's attention. A housewife, her supporters say, who will lead a nation.

(Kyi among supporters)

Ms. KHIN: We have a hope. We have a future. It is no doubt that she will be the leader. She is our leader.

PAULEY: Ominously, Burma's state-run newspaper reports Aung San Suu Kyi could face the death penalty or life in prison for high treason. Meanwhile, she supports the economic sanctions the US government is using to try to bring about change in Burma.

Show: Dateline NBC (7:00 pm ET) August 13, 2000

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