This past weekend, Burma’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, now 65, was freed after nearly twenty years of house arrest.
Early in her captivity, we visited Yangon. Our job was to talk to government officials there about an infrastructure project that would have brought work for thousands.
The colonial-era hotels in the middle of the city were too decrepit by then to use for business meetings. In fact, most of downtown Yangon, a crowded city of four million, was cracked and crumbling.
But our hotel, nearly empty, was a new Singapore-owned complex in the suburbs. It overlooked a lush, quiet neighborhood full of big white houses that had been left behind by the former English rulers.
“That’s where the generals live,” one of our local hosts explained. “See that big house in the middle,” he said, pointing from a window. “That’s Suu Kyi’s. It used to be her father’s.”
Later, we arranged to drive through the neighborhood. The entrance was gated and manned by a few soldiers. Inside, the streets were neat and peaceful.
In front of Suu Kyi’s house there was a sawhorse perimeter but no other guards in sight. In those days, her gardens were still trimmed and the paint on the walls was fresh and white. It was hard to think of it as a prison.
Before she won big at the polls, before the generals arrested her and nearly 2,000 others from her pro-democracy party, Suu Kyi said about corruption:
The effort necessary to remain uncorrupted in an environment where fear is an integral part of everyday existence is not immediately apparent to those fortunate enough to live in states governed by the rule of law. Just laws do not merely prevent corruption by meting out impartial punishment to offenders. They also help to create a society in which people can fulfill the basic requirements necessary for the preservation of human dignity without recourse to corrupt practices.
While she was being held hostage, Burma was sinking to the bottom of the Corruption Perception Index, landing this year one spot from dead last.
But Suu Kyi never gave up. On her first day of freedom, she talked about hope, just as she had twenty years earlier.
The deal we went to Yangon to work on never happened. The officials there were too greedy, or maybe just scared of outsiders. Or maybe both. So we packed our bags and left. But the memory of that big white house that didn’t look like a prison never left us.