The struggle to speak for Aung San Suu Kyi

Author: By Phoebe Kennedy in Rangoon

His home phone will be ringing off the hook tonight after a court in Rangoon’s Insein prison hears closing arguments in the trial of his party leader, Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. It is Nyan Win’s job to update journalists and diplomats on a trial that has been held mostly in secret.

Sometimes it is his wife, Hla Hla, who answers, to say her husband is “taking a walk”, presumably to clear his head before the onslaught of callers. It has been a long day for him already. As well as being party spokesman, Nyan Win is one of three lawyers who have been defending Ms Suu Kyi since May against charges of breaching the terms of her house arrest.

“Every evening when I come back the phone rings constantly,” the 66-year-old says. “It never stops. They ask me about the trial. We need the international community, so we need to deliver this news. I never tire of this work.”

Meeting Nyan Win in person is tricky for foreign journalists, who are officially banned in Burma, and Nyan Win lives under constant surveillance. “Two intelligence persons are always outside my house. They follow me everywhere,” the lawyer says. “I don’t worry about them. They are just doing their job. They always say to me ‘Uncle, where are you going?’ I always tell them. I don’t keep secrets.”

All NLD members live in constant fear for their safety and liberty. Ms Suu Kyi, her deputy Tin Oo and about 200 more party activists are among Burma’s estimated 2,100 political prisoners. Nyan Win was detained in 1998, and held in army barracks outside Rangoon for three years. He was never charged. Now he seems beyond fear.

“We don’t worry about prison, things like that. In Burma if you do anything in politics you have to face that. My family supports me,” said Nyan Win, who lives with his wife and 11-year-old grandson.

Nyan Win was working as a government attorney in the central law office, and was head of the Labour Union, when he was thrust into politics. It was 1988, and demonstrators were on the streets calling for the removal of the military government. Ms Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero Aung San who had only recently returned to Burma to nurse her sick mother, made a powerful speech at the golden Shwedagon Pagoda and became the public face of the democracy movement.

“We had hope. We had confidence. We demonstrated in downtown Rangoon every day, morning to evening. We issued many declarations about democracy and human rights. We asked the government to step down,” Nyan Win said.

But on 19 September, he boarded a bus to attend a Labour Union meeting he had called. “I was on the way there, near the Shwedagon Pagoda when I heard the firing sounds. It was the police firing into the crowds, firing

into cars. I got off the bus and ran to my home.” The army retook the streets, killing at least 3,000 people in a brutal crackdown.

Two months on, Nyan Win was forced to resign as a government attorney. In 1990 parliamentary elections ? held with Ms Suu Kyi already under house arrest ? he was elected as an NLD MP in his home state of Mon, and the party swept to a landslide victory. But the army ignored the result and he has never taken up his seat.

In 19 years, little has changed.

Ms Suu Kyi has been in detention for 13 of them, and her party limps along in a dingy, crumbling office. Instead of running the affairs of a nation of more than 50 million, party officials travel by bus to meetings, and issue statements on cheap, rough paper. “All NLD positions are voluntary. We get some funds from Western donors. But for my committee, the information committee, we have not much money. Sometimes we collect a little to buy papers and pencils, it is never easy for us.”

Above all these privations, it is the absence of their leader that has hit party activists the hardest. That is unlikely to change, with a guilty verdict and a further extension of Ms Suu Kyi’s detention the widely anticipated outcome of her trial. The case was triggered by an incident in May when an American man swam to her lakeside home to warn her about a dream that she would be assassinated. Ms Suu Kyi is charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest by sheltering him and could receive a five-year sentence.

Without her, the NLD has no new strategy or direction. The party’s call for the restitution of 1990 election results seems lame after nearly two decades. “I do my job with great difficulty. We have no guidance from the highest office,” says Nyan Win.

“But I always have hope. If I didn’t have hope I couldn’t do this job. I know the majority of Burmese support the NLD and they all want to see democracy in Burma. Our whole country is a jail. We want to be free.”

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