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Entering her fifth year under house arrest this month, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi remains the wild card in Burma's future.

While she stays in her tightly guarded compound on Inle Lake, held strictly incommunicado, she can have little direct influence on political developments. Nonetheless she remains the most potent embodiment of the Burmese people's desire for political freedom.

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As such, she is the single biggest threat to the State Law and Order Restoration Committee's (SLORC) attempt to orchestrate a transition from a military government to a civilian administration that the military can control. Any disruption of this plan raises the specter of prosecution of military officers for killing civilians during student riots in 1988.

With such stakes, it is little wonder SLORC has balked at releasing her, even though the 21-member council, where she is referred to as "the Woman," has reportedly debated the issue.

"While she is in [her compound], they are in control; if they let her out, all bets are off," says one Western resident.

Overseas, she could generate volumes of publicity that would lend renewed credibility to the government-in-exile composed of deputies elected in the annulled 1990 elections and based at the Karen rebel headquarters at Manerplaw.

In a country where facts are hard to come by, rumors that Ms. Suu Kyi may go on a hunger strike have likely been off the mark. "I think [at] the first sign of her getting seriously ill, they would force feed her or deport her ... , and I think she knows that," explains a resident.

A couple of limited hunger strikes - lasting about a week - have protested the treatment of her small staff. She got results. She has also been allowed a couple of family visits from her husband, Michael Aris, a British academic, and her two sons.

SLORC probably hoped the visits would weaken her resolve to maintain her defiant vigil.

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By some accounts, her main opponent in this test of wills is Gen. Ne Win, who more than anyone else is responsible for the political order Suu Kyi has dared to challenge. He is said to have been enraged by her direct attacks against him in public appearances before her arrest.

Ironically, the former dictator leads an almost equally reclusive life on the far side of the vast lake dividing the city.

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