Aung San Suu Kyi released in Burma (Myanmar), but don't forget what happened in Depayin

The last time Aung San Suu Kyi was released it was 2002, and to reporters like myself covering Burma, it was obvious that an olive branch had been extended, though we weren’t sure how far it would go.

Khin Maung Win/AP
Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (c.) smiles to her supporters as she leaves the headquarters of her National League for Democracy, on Nov. 15, in Yangon, Myanmar.

The world has cheered the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, after more than seven years under house arrest. She is busy giving interviews, meeting political allies, and getting her political bearings in military-ruled Burma (Myanmar).

The last time this happened was in 2002, as part of what was billed as a national reconciliation program. To reporters like myself covering Burma, it was obvious that an olive branch had been extended, though we weren’t sure how far it would go.

The mood of détente didn’t last. By the following year, Ms. Suu Kyi was attracting huge crowds as she toured the country, to the obvious irritation of junta hardliners who feared any challenge to their grip on power.

Then came the events of May 30, 2003. A deadly ambush in the northern district of Depayin by pro-government thugs on a convoy of Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) supporters marked the end of her brief spell of freedom and the start of another cycle of repression in Burma.

The official account of the Depayin incident was that rowdy NLD activists had clashed with local residents in a remote village. This gave a pretext for the regime to detain the opposition leader, for her own safety.

In reality, as I found out when I traveled to the scene, it was a one-sided attack by men armed with sticks and knives. Bodies were piled into trucks and taken away. I was told of men plied with alcohol and recruited to fight.

Few believed the government’s version of events. Why would they? I was skeptical when I went there to report the story.

But establishing what did happen, and the death toll, has been complicated by the fact that many of the witnesses were detained or went missing. One crucial witness was Suu Kyi, who was trapped in her car during the attack.

By some accounts, the attack may have been an attempt on her life, though it’s unclear how it failed. Nobody could doubt that such an attack had gotten a green light from Burma’s top generals, who remain in power today.

At the time, exiled Burmese activists put the death toll at 70. But this was mostly guesswork. Some supporters were arrested and are probably still in jail. I’m sure Suu Kyi will keep calling for the release of them along with all 2,000-plus political prisoners in Burma.

She may eventually give her account of the events at Depayin, another blood-soaked episode in Burma’s political history. Recall that Suu Kyi is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947 by a political rival on the eve of Burmese independence from Britain. Some NLD officials are nervous about her security in the current climate.

And the pro-government thugs at Depayin? In April, their organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, formed a political party, the USDP, which duly won a landslide in last week’s election.

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