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Richard Vogel/AP.
Pro-Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her Rangoon home.

Burmese Democracy Leader Faces New Threat
Aung San Suu Kyi has been a prisoner in her own home for years. Now she may lose it after a legal suit brought by her U.S.-based brother

November 27, 2000
Web posted at 3:05 p.m. Hong Kong time, 2:05 a.m. EDT

Talk about spite. First, Burma's military government told pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi that she couldn't leave Rangoon. Then they told her that she couldn't leave her house. Now, they want the house.

According to Burmese exiles and observers in Rangoon, that's the real story behind a lawsuit filed by Suu Kyi's estranged older brother, Aung San Oo, demanding half of the house where Suu Kyi has lived since 1988. She has been detained there since Sept. 2, when troops forcibly dragged her back home after she tried to leave the capital to meet supporters up-country. A government spokesman said Suu Kyi would be allowed out to plead her case, but she didn't show up in the Rangoon court where the suit was being heard last Tuesday morning. It isn't known whether she chose not to attend, or was prevented from doing so. The judge postponed opening arguments until Nov. 27, and said if Suu Kyi didn't appear then, the case would proceed without her.

Suu Kyi's two-story, monsoon-stained mansion has been her jail, her de facto political headquarters, and her fragile sanctuary from the military. Between 1989 and 1995, Suu Kyi was kept under arrest inside the creaky, lakeside house for leading a campaign to end military rule. In 1990, while confined to her home, her political party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in national elections. The military, however, refused to honor the result. In 1991, while still under house arrest, she won the Nobel Peace Prize. After her release, she gave speeches to thousands of followers who gathered every weekend at her blue metal gate. So the military threw up barbed wire barricades and blocked the street. And government personnel occupy the house across the road from where they monitor Suu Kyi and her visitors.

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Now it seems that's not quite enough. "This is not just bad for Aung San Suu Kyi personally, it's bad for our country's politics," says Khin Maung Win, a member of the Burma Lawyers' Council, a group of exiled Burmese jurists in Bangkok. He says that if Aung San Oo wins the case, he'll probably donate or sell his share of the house to the military government. "Then they can go in there anytime they want."

Et tu, brother? Why would Aung San Oo turn against his sister and side with the one of the world's most reviled regimes? Legally, if Aung San Oo wins the case, he can't even keep the house. He's a U.S. citizen, an engineer who lives in San Diego, California, and under Burmese law foreigners are not allowed to own land or houses. But relations between the two surviving children of General Aung San, Burma's independence hero who was assassinated in 1947, have been frosty at best for years. According to some observers in Rangoon, neither approved of the other's choice of a spouse. Maybe it's just sibling rivalry.

In any case, the house in question was originally the property of their mother, Daw Khin Kyi. After she suffered a stroke in early 1988, Suu Kyi, who had never relinquished her Burmese citizenship despite marrying an Oxford professor and living in England, returned to Rangoon to care for her. It was while she was in Burma that the nation erupted in revolt against the military, which had abolished democracy in a 1962 coup and driven the resource-rich country into economic ruin. Aung San is still revered in Burma, and many protesters hoped that his son Aung San Oo would return to lead them. But he had no interest in assuming that role, and instead, it was Aung San Suu Kyi who took up their cause.

When Daw Khin Kyi died in December 1988, her will left the house to both her children, with the provision that if they sold, it must go to a charity. It would be simple enough for Aung San Oo to sell his share to a government-run charity, giving the military the access it apparently wants. In the 12 years since Daw Khin Kyi's death, Aung San Oo never showed any interest in the property, until a few weeks ago. His sudden desire to take possession of the house may have more to do with his wife, who in recent years has made frequent trips to Burma. "We believe his wife is influencing him," Khin Maung Win says. "She has been doing business and is seeking business opportunities from the junta." Burmese exiles and Rangoon residents who have had contact with Aung San Oo and his wife, support that view.

Suu Kyi may not be out on the street, yet. According to various experts in Burmese law, should the court decide in favor of Aung San Oo, by rights she should still have the first opportunity to buy her brother's half. "But the courts in Burma are not independent," Khin Maung Win says. In fact, Burma's courts are a farce. Their record leaves little doubt they are under the complete control of the military. Even if Suu Kyi is given the chance to buy her brother's share, it's not clear what the value of the house is, and if she has enough money to keep it. While under house arrest she was forced to sell her furniture to buy food. And the million dollars that came along with the Nobel Prize has reportedly gone to families of political prisoners.

Word around Rangoon last week was that Suu Kyi was seeking to hire a lawyer. Not many lawyers in Rangoon would probably want the government's chief nemesis as their client. "They even arrested her dentist," said Kyi Maung, the former vice chairman of Suu Kyi's party, during a wave of mass arrests of democracy activists in 1996. "If she had a dog, they would arrest her veterinarian." But as one Rangoon-based diplomat said, "She may never show up in court at all. She might just ignore the whole thing and dare them to come into her home and take it."

Late last year, former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto visited Burma and met with the generals. Burma's military is anxious for Japan to resume aid to their country, which it cut off when soldiers gunned down thousands of democracy demonstrators in 1988. Hashimoto gave the generals this advice when it came to dealing with Suu Kyi and her followers: Don't back her into a corner.

The generals, it appears, aren't listening.

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