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Sowing the First Seeds Of Political Discourse

Suu Kyi's informal talks with the crowds at her front gate inspire hope in Burma

IT is a Sunday afternoon and, as she has done dozens of times since she was freed from house arrest on July 10, Aung San Suu Kyi stands on a ladder behind the blue gate of her Rangoon home. Gripping a microphone and one of the spikes along the top of the gate, she smiles at the hundreds of people who have waited in the rain to see her. Joined by U Tin Oo, also a leader of Burma's political opposition, Ms. Suu Kyi speaks of patience, unity, and discipline. She says the way to democracy will take time. She urges her listeners to be loyal to one another. Mr. Tin Oo, who has been a Buddhist monk, Army chief of staff, and defense minister in his career, strikes both political and religious tones. ''The essence of democracy is as Aung San Suu Kyi writes,'' he says. ''It is freedom from fear..... Be brave, be unified.'' Although the language seems more inspirational than ideological, these gate appearances are the closest thing here to open political discourse. They are also illegal, under a decree issued by the ruling military junta that bans meetings of five or more people. No mention of the speeches appears in the media. The reemergence of Suu Kyi has given a lift to many Burmese, as is demonstrated by the applause and sympathy her appearances evoke. But it has also provoked other reactions, ranging from relief to confidence to dread. The daughter of a national hero who led Burma to independence, Suu Kyi suddenly involved herself in politics as part of a large pro-democracy movement that arose in 1988. The country was in ferment because the military ruler who had run Burma since 1962 had announced his retirement, creating an opportunity for students and dissidents to demand democratic reforms. Suu Kyi came to symbolize these aspirations, which she called the nation's second struggle for independence. The military responded with violence and repression. It quickly consolidated power in the hands of a junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council. The council confined Suu Kyi to her house in July 1989 and ignored the results of elections in May 1990 that her political party won overwhelmingly. While under house arrest in 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her lineage, her campaign for democracy, and her time under house arrest all contribute to the esteem in which many Burmese hold her. ''We trust her,'' says a businessman who has attended a few speeches. ''We trust that she will lead us out of this mess.'' Many people simply say they are pleased to see her again. As one monk puts it: ''The people are very glad that she is healthy.'' Although it has been two months since her release, there is still a sense of delight in the crowds, and especially in the faces of those riding the buses that happen past the gate as she speaks. Unlike the audience, these passersby have not planned to see her, yet virtually every face is turned in her direction, most smiling. The sense of relief is not limited to concern about Suu Kyi's well-being. Some people are also glad that the years of house arrest seem to have made her more circumspect in facing the junta. ''Right now her approach is OK ... very diplomatic,'' says a banker. His attendance attests to the confidence that the release has instilled in some Burmese. He points out that listeners must contend with official photographers who suspiciously seem more interested in recording the faces in the crowd than those of the speakers. As a result of her release, observes the businessman, ''at least some people are becoming indifferent to the threat of suppression.'' (Nobody interviewed, however, was so indifferent that they would allow a reporter to quote them by name.) A government official says the regime is not worried about the speeches, which he notes have dwindled since mid-July when Suu Kyi was making several appearances a day at the gate. Unsurprisingly, Suu Kyi sees the situation differently. ''I'm surprised that they've kept coming.... I thought perhaps that after the first week or two they would stop coming altogether, but they don't seem to be stopping.''

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