Aung San Suu Kyi: How even selling her soul couldn't buy freedom

Aung San Suu Kyi was once praised internationally, but foreign voices have not been so supportive for a while. Credit: AP

So, ten years after her release Aung San Suu Kyi finds herself back in detention. Worse than that, her country’s flirt with democracy is at least on hold, if not over. The military always viewed her as a threat and it seems her party’s landslide victory in November’s elections frightened them sufficiently to mount a coup. On the face of things it’s an act of self harm by the generals. International condemnation of their actions has been swift and sanctions will surely follow.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest before. Credit: AP

And why did they feel so threatened, given that Myanmar’s constitution enshrines their hold on power – a guaranteed 25% of parliamentary seats, plus control of the defence and home affairs ministries?

Much that’s good for the people of Myanmar flowed from the release of Ms Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010. We, like all foreign journalists in Yangon at that time, had to pretend to be tourists.

  • ITV News international correspondent John Irvine got the first one-on-one interview with Ms Suu Kyi following her 2010 release

Loitering near the army barricade at the entrance to the street where she lived had become a daily routine.

The only part of the tourist uniform we had eschewed was flip-flops. They are not good to run in. Suddenly one afternoon soldiers started to march and form up. Had we been rumbled? It wouldn’t have been difficult! They formed a column, did an about turn and were off. It took a heartbeat or two, but then it dawned on us. They were letting her go. Cameraman Sean Swan, our Beijing producer Lu Bo and myself ran as fast as we could, which was faster than everyone else as they were in flip-flops.

We reached her gate first and were in prime position, when, about an hour later, the lady sauntered out and stood above a huge joyous throng of people to announce her freedom. The atmosphere was electric and the possibilities seemed limitless. It was intoxicating.

Two days later we were the first news crew to get a one-on-one interview with Ms Suu Kyi inside the home that had been her prison for 15 years.

Our discussion was interrupted by a phone call from the then-prime minister, David Cameron.

A member of We Volunteer, a network of Thai pro-democracy protesters, who joined Myanmar protesters, against riot police in Bangkok. Credit: AP

Ms Suu Kyi was big news. She was an icon in the true sense of that word. U2 had even written a song about her. Wind forward to now and not many foreigners are still singing her praises. Her image has been tarnished by her repeated attempts to rationalise the persecution and expulsion of the Rohingya. At home she remains revered. The Rohingya are generally loathed. Her attempts to explain away the despicable actions of the military could be viewed as ruthlessly pragmatic.

By defending the generals she was defending the pact that allowed them and her to govern in tandem. For a time it worked reasonably well. Sanctions were lifted and foreign investment flowed in. Now the clock has been wound back. The military is back in charge and the Lady is back in detention. There is a difference this time though. Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer a beacon of democracy, she’s a jailed former leader who couldn’t buy her continued freedom, not even by selling her soul.