No peace for Suu Kyi

source : The Times- MONDAY JANUARY 29 2001

An acrimonious family dispute has developed between the Nobel prizewinner and her brother over who owns the property in Burma where she has been kept under house arrest.

Grace Bradberry reports

Aung San Suu Kyi is a woman of whom people do not like to ask personal questions. For one thing, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has been all but canonised, and one does not quiz saints about their private lives. For another it would seem that she has no private life.

Before 1988, when she returned to Rangoon to nurse her dying mother and became leader of the National League for Democracy, the opposition party, she was a housewife in Oxford with a husband and two sons.

After 1988, she was an international human rights heroine, who was allowed little contact with her family. It was as if from that time on her private life came to a halt and was replaced by a public one. But nobody is without a private life entirely.

Last November Aung San Suu Kyiís resurfaced. A brother, whose name barely appears in the index of books written about her, filed a lawsuit demanding half of the property in Rangoon where she has lived, often under house arrest, for the past 12 years. Property is divided equally between children under Burmese law. Reports noted drily that Aung San Suu Kyi and her brother were estranged.

Why would anyone, let alone a brother, do such a thing to a woman who is so revered?

The move was all the more inexplicable because her brother is a US citizen and under Burmese law a foreigner cannot own property in the country. The answers to these questions lie with 54 University Avenue, the shuttered house by Lake Inya that has become something of a shrine for human rights campaigners. It is a house that seems to be owned by history and by politics it was given by the state to Aung San Suu Kyiís mother in recognition of her late husband, General Aung San, who won Burmaís independence from the British.

Yet the truth is that for both Aung San Suu Kyi and her brother, Aung San Oo, it is a house where the personal is embedded in every cranny. It was here that brother and sister grew up together, in the shadow of their fatherís reputation, and became locked in a complex sibling rivalry that has continued for 50 years.

The rift is deep, kept open by perceived slights and wounding disagreements of a highly personal nature. Compared to Aung San Suu Kyiís moral fight it seems petty stuff and yet it could have led to her losing the house, and with it a crucial powerbase for the Burmese opposition. The furniture at the house is the same that both siblings remember from their childhood. The house itself is unchanged, though neglect has taken its toll a layer of moss has crept across peeling plasterwork. In most other cities it would be a property developerís dream, located in the townís best neighbourhood (Yangon) and in need of work.

Even on Rangoonís less than buoyant property market, the estate has been variously valued by commentators at between £4 million and £40 million. Eight thousand miles away stands a house that could not be more different.

Built in 1962, it covers a mere 1,200 square feet, has three bedrooms, two bathrooms and is located on an unassuming street in a middling-to-good area of San Diego. Its value is no more than £200,000.

It is here that Aung San Suu Kyiís brother, a 57-year-old computer engineer for the US Navy, lives with his wife Lei Lei Nwe Thein, a university administrator. They moved there in 1990. A year later Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Oddly, it was not until last November that any of his neighbours discovered the connection. They were alerted to it by leaflets posted through doors that denounced Aung San Oo, and condemned the lawsuit he had filed claiming half the Rangoon property. To drive home their disgust, members of the Burmese-American community held up placards outside Aung San Ooís house.

What had incensed the protestors were the possible consequences of the lawsuit. If Aung San Oo won, his half of the property would probably be handed over to Burmaís military Government. Some feared that Aung San Suu Kyi would be evicted, perhaps even moved to prison.

On the Internet, Burmese-Americans speculated on the brotherís motivations: he was anti-democracy, he was in league with Burmaís military junta, he had been pushed into it by his wife, he hated his sister. There were a few ugly e-mails about genetic mutation implying that Aung San Oo had betrayed his fatherís legacy. Aung San Oo was the eldest of three children born to General Aung San and Khin Kyi, a former nurse who had looked after him when he became sick. In July 1947, just six months before independence, General Aung San was assassinated. His eldest son was four, his youngest son three and his daughter two. Aung San Suu Kyi grew up unable to remember her father.

Aung San Oo was old enough not only to remember but to miss him. He is recalled as a withdrawn child and there is speculation that he was badly traumatised by the death of his father. At such a time, it might have helped to have his mother on hand. But she accepted a government job and became,immersed in her work, according to an old family friend, Ma Than E.

In her book Freedom From Fear, Aung San Suu Kyi recalls that she was closer to her other brother, Aung San Lin, than to Aung San Oo.

Tragically, Aung San Lin died when he was eight, drowning in an ornamental lake in the grounds of the house. Of the two children, it seems to have been Aung San Oo who was the least psychologically robust.

He was always jealous of his sister, recalls a family friend.

There was a definite rivalry. He hadnít the charm of his sister, even though he was able in other ways. Dr Alice Khin, a Burmese expatriate who now lives in Canada, says that Aung San Oo is said to have felt lonely and depressed.

He was also judged to be less good-looking than his sister.She got the good looks, says Dr Khin. She also had confidence in herself. He did not.

Both children, though brought up as Buddhists, attended Catholic schools in Burma. But while Aung San Suu Kyi was educated in Burma and then, from 15, in India, Aung San Oo was despatched to Dover College in England for the sixth form. Living with her mother in Delhi, Aung San Suu Kyi took flower arranging classes, learned to ride, and acquired a wide circle of Indian friends, including Indira Ghandiís sons Rajiv and Sanjay.

Returning from Dover College, and later from Imperial College, Aung San Oo would have found himself an outsider to this circle.

Mary Trevellyan, an old family friend, was appointed his guardian while he was at Imperial. But despite this support, it seems that he felt isolated during his student days. His wife has complained that the Burmese community in London abandoned him.

While he was in the UK, nobody treated him nicely as he was a poor student,she said in a radio interview, going on to mention three Burmese expatriates who apparently did not acknowledge him.

While Aung San Suu Kyi met her husband, Michael Aris, at Oxford, Aung San Oo seems to have felt few ties to Imperial, and subsequently moved to America. But it was an event years later that would lead to the greatest rancour between brother and sister.

Shortly before their motherís death, Aung San Oo married Lei Lei Nwe Thein, his junior by about ten years.

His mother disapproved of his choice, and his sister reportedly thought the antagonism sufficiently justified to ask her brother not to take his wife to the funeral. He went alone.

Lei Lei Nwe Thein seems to provoke a good degree of bile. Rumours abound in the Internet chat rooms frequented by Burmese-Americans.

One is that before she emigrated to America, she dated men from the American Embassy in Rangoon. There are also malicious whispers that she might have enjoyed a full relationship with another man before she married Aung San Oo.

In Burma, dating foreigners is frowned upon. Enjoying pre-marital sex, even within a long-term relationship, is considered heinous.

Aung San Suu Kyiís sister-in-law is also accused of being manipulative and there are unsubstantiated rumours that her family is connected to the military regime.

Lei Lei Nwe Thein denies all this.On the Internet people are swearing about me, saying that I am the one making this claim, she told a Burmese-language radio station.

What the heck is going on? If Iíd wanted the house I would have done this a long time ago. So was it true that her father enjoyed some sort of close relationship with General Khin Nyint, part of Burmaís military regime?

My father?,Lei Lei Nwe Thein replied. He is already dead, so how can he have some relationship with General Khin Nyint?

In his whole life, my father was never a government servant. He never behaved humbly to anyone to get opportunities. He never stole government money for his own purposes. How could he have a relationship with General Khin Nyint?

She also rejects the idea that she encouraged her husband to pursue the lawsuit.

My husband is not a weak man. He is like stone and nobody can change his desire.So why did he bring the lawsuit?

ďIt is just to legalise his share of the property. But it has become all blown out of proportion this is just a family affair, not a public one.

According to Lei Lei Nwe Thein, her husband was simply trying to follow his motherís wishes, she said, and turn the house into a memorial. It is well-known that Khin Kyi intended the house to become an educational trust or museum. But then she died before she knew the role that her daughter would play in Burmese politics.

We have never thought about living in the house,Lei Lei Nwe Thein told the Radio Free Burma journalist.

Khin Kyi wanted it to be opened up as a memorial. You all know, this is a state house the state gave it to the family.

She also cited a Burmese statute of limitation which gave her husband only 12 years from his motherís death in which to file the suit.

If not, Oo (her husband) will lose his property. This is just to make sure that we own half of the house. The only thing she (Aung San Suu Kyi) has to do is accept this. Her refusal causes all kinds of trouble.

As it turns out, the trouble has landed at the San Diego door of Aung San Oo and his wife.

Last week, a Burmese court threw out the lawsuit, ostensibly on technical grounds. Observers interpreted this as a softening of the juntaís stance towards both Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition party. Those who have heard from Aung San Suu Kyi over the past few months say that she has not been concerned about the property dispute.

Aung San Oo last visited Burma in July, to attend the 53rd anniversary of his fatherís death. He went to the house at University Avenue. The two siblings did not speak.