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Glass Palace prison

While one would envy the life of the most famous political prisoner and proponent of non-violence, Suu Kyi felt she had the most tumultous journey ever, reports Sagari Chhabra.
None | By Sagari Chhabra
UPDATED ON OCT 18, 2007 11:01 PM IST

I had the privilege of living a few houses away from Aung San Suu Kyi on University Avenue by Inya Lake, Burma, for several months. The sole reason for choosing my residence was that I was hoping to meet, or at least get a glimpse of, the most famous political prisoner and proponent of non-violence alive.

On her 62nd birthday, Suu Kyi had spent a total of 11 years, 10 months and 27 days under house arrest, apart from short spells during which she was allowed to meet people. On one such occasion, she visited the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Yangon. The office, then headed by Rajiv Kapur, had a poster which said: 'A refugee would love to have your problems'. Suu Kyi looked at it and shook her head. "No one would like to have my problems," she told Kapur.

Indeed, after her party, the National League of Democracy, won almost 80 per cent of the votes in the last elections, the military regime responded by imprisoning her and many of her supporters. The spy and surveillance system is
so intricately entrenched that I found the landlord of the inn on University Avenue copiously reading my diaries, eavesdropping on my conversations and reporting my activities to the regime. As a result, my permit of stay was not extended.

During my research trips, I had to have a liaison officer accompany me. At Ziawaddy, someone banged on my door at 8 pm. "Who is it?" I asked alarmed. A voice informed me that along with my Burmese liaison officer, I had to record our visit at the police station. "If you neglect to do this, you will be imprisoned," I was told. And I know many Burmese who have been arrested for the same. The rule of informing the police if you stay overnight anywhere has been put into force to squash any underground activity for democracy.

En route from the famed glass palace of Mandalay to Maymeo, I came across a huge construction site. This struck me as strange since I had hardly seen any economic activity in Burma, a consequence no doubt of the West's economic sanctions. I took a few photographs and then asked the armed guard what was being built. "A prison," he replied blandly.

During my travels through the breathtakingly beautiful country, green with tropical forests and gold with pagodas, I met the most deeply spiritual and gentle people. The Burmese feed and clothe monks who hold the highest position in the Buddhist hierarchy, as they believe this earns them merit. These monks led the recent demonstrations in the country, but the military brutalised them, raiding monasteries across the country, savaging and arresting thousands of monks and lay people.

While the Indian government practises its 'Look East' policy, let me share with you the shame and horror I felt on seeing the number of people of Indian origin living without Burmese citizenship. This implies that they cannot hold a regular job, buy or sell property or even travel within the country without permission. Some of them were members of Netaji's Indian National Army. Official figures indicate that there are over 400,000 such people in Burma. Surely, India should look into their interests and strive to obtain them basic rights.

I tried to bring the matter to the attention of Kedar Nath, then head of the Arya Samaj in Burma. We spoke on the phone and agreed to meet in a week, but he died before that. He was only 62 and had been imprisoned for four years on the charge of "having given a letter to a monk to take to India", my sources said. The conditions in the jail were so pathetic that his health deteriorated. While he was released, he died soon after. This is the plight of many socially and politically active people within Burma.

India's North-eastern states are a victim of the drug-running that originates from Burma. In desperation, India is even resorting to a 'harm minimisation' programme, under which free needles are distributed to protect the youth from HIV.

The fact is profits from drugs are what the Burmese militia use to build safe havens in the West, where they will probably retreat once democracy returns to Burma.

Burma has been isolated for too long and India claims that the generals help us in 'Operation Golden Bird' to control insurgency in the North-east. The truth is that the generals give the insurgents a safe haven in Burma while unleashing a 'joint-operation' as an eye-wash. Absolute and brute power has been wielded to keep some of the most spiritual, gentle and compassionate people of the world oppressed.

But the question is, for how long? International opinion will have to build up to release Suu Kyi and the Burmese people from the prison-house that the militia has created out of Burma.

Sagari Chhabra is a filmmaker and writer.

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