Nyo Ohn Myint still remembers the moment, 20 years ago, when the legend of Aung San Suu Kyi

began. He was there when she gave a stirring speech and became the symbol of hope for a country under the oppressive grip of military rule since 1962. The then history teacher at Rangoon University was in a convoy of five vehicles that had taken Suu Kyi, on the morning of August 26, 1988, from her colonial-era home in the Burmese city to a public meeting in front of the great, gold-topped Shwedagon pagoda.

It was slow going, Nyo Ohn Myint, then 25, recalls. They had taken an hour to cover the three-mile distance. And that first major public appearance for Suu Kyi gained significance in the wake of the brutal crackdown over two weeks before when Burmese troops had shot to death some 3,000 unarmed people protesting against the military dictatorship. That August 8 protest drew hundreds of thousands of people.

The crowds had swelled to nearly 500,000 to hear Suu Kyi, then 43, who was only known as the daughter of Burma’s independence hero, Gen. Aung San, and an occasional visitor to the country from Oxford where she was living with her British academic husband. Nyo Ohn Myint stood on a side stage and watched Suu Kyi establish her political credentials in Burmese.

That day she emerged “as the person who could lead our country,” the former confidant of Suu Kyi said. “She impressed the crowds and was totally committed to take on the political challenge of dealing with the military regime.”

Other student activists who were in the vanguard of the 1988 anti-government protests feel likewise about Suu Kyi’s debut on Burma’s political landscape. “She gave people hope with her speech,” says Myint Myint San, then a 22-year-old final year botany student at Rangoon University. “She did a tremendous job to help people understand what democracy means. And she dared to speak to the army and confront (then dictator) Gen. Ne Win.”

In the days that followed, the tapes of her speech were in high demand. “People kept playing it again and again,” Myint Myint San said. “People began to talk of Burma getting its second independence after we got our first when the British (colonisers) left (in 1948).”

It was a dramatic turn of events for a woman who had come home in March 1988 to care of her sick mother and with no thought of political activism on her mind. “When I returned home to Burma in 1988 to nurse my sick mother, I was planning on starting a chain of libraries in my father’s name. A life of politics held no attraction to me,” she said in a 1995 interview with ‘Vanity Fair’. “But the people of my country were demanding for democracy, and as my father’s daughter, I felt I had a duty to get involved.”

Yet, two decades later, the hope for a new Burmese independence appears remote. The junta remains firmly in control, with a tighter grip on the political landscape than in 1988. And Suu Kyi’s democratic mission has been forced to the margins. But that has

not diminished Suu Kyi’s stature as a democracy icon in the non-violent mould of Mahatma Gandhi. It has come at great personal sacrifice, though, given the over 13 of the past 19 years she has spent under house arrest, and the harsh limits the junta placed on her meetings with supporters and family members. — IPS