In September 2000, I went to Burma to see the places where George Orwell had worked as a policeman in the 1920’s.  As I planned my trip, I fantasized about meeting the brave and beautiful Suu Kyi, daughter of the national hero, Aung San, who was assassinated by a rival political faction in 1947.  Her party had won the national elections in 1990, and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.  But the ruling military junta had not allowed her party to take power and had put her under house arrest.  Temporarily released in 1995, but still restricted in her movements, she remained an idealistic, democratic alternative to the repressive regime.

Shortly before I left home, the American attaché, who had invited me to give a talk at the embassy’s cultural center, asked if I would like to meet “a certain Lady.”  She was expected for tea at his house only a few hours after my arrival in Rangoon.  I could hardly believe my luck, but I was soon disappointed.  The day before I got there, Suu Kyi had decided to test the limits of her freedom.  She drove to a political meeting south of the Rangoon River and was blockaded in her car by the police.  The European Union and the United States government, which had placed economic sanctions on Burma, both protested her detention but could not obtain her release.  The situation kept our embassy busy fielding calls from Washington and from Western reporters, who were urgently trying to find out what had happened to her.  Meanwhile, the American chargé d’affaires and the British ambassador were making strenuous efforts to reach and rescue her.

Our broken date brought home to me the nature of her courage and the everyday hardship of living under a military dictatorship.  Supposing she was still in town, I asked my friend, would it be possible for her to attend my talk?  “Not if you want an audience,” he replied.  “If she entered the room, everyone else, afraid of being publicly associated with her, would immediately rush out.”  I could not mention my near meeting to anyone I met, especially not to the lively audience of students, teachers, and writers at the cultural center.  After I said that I had visited Insein prison, where Orwell was stationed and had witnessed a hanging, a few people in the audience told me that they had spent years in that prison.  One doctor, who’d had tuberculosis, was released only because her jailors feared she would die there.  The crisis that followed Suu Kyi’s detention haunted my stay in Burma.

In Rangoon, I immediately got into a fascinating muddle that involved her.  At the airport in Kuala Lumpur, I’d met a young Burmese couple, living in Australia, who were coming home to visit relatives.  They came to my hotel to show me the sights, such as they were, and took an interest in my quest for Orwell.  At the end of an expedition to an oil refinery in Syriam, which Orwell’s policemen once guarded, they dropped me off near the Strand Hotel to cross the river to Twante, where he had also worked.  By taking me to the jetty and telling me that Twante was on the other side of the river, they were politely saying: “We can’t take you to Twante by car.  Go there by yourself, if you can get across.”  They claimed I could see Twante, which they maintained had absolutely no interest, from our side of the river, and refused to accept my statement that Twante was in fact ten miles distant from the opposite side.

A policeman told them that I couldn’t cross the river, and they told me the passenger ferry was “unsafe for foreigners.”  When I tried to hire one of the small private boats at the dock, they were horrified and said that would be even more dangerous.  The real reason why I couldn’t go—which I knew but they didn’t know I knew, and I didn’t know if they really knew (the subject was unmentionable)—was the police blockade of Suu Kyi, which was right on the road I wanted to take.

A young Burmese I knew in America had given me an introduction to a retired army officer, who I assumed was aligned with the repressive regime, and asked me to deliver a packet of letters and family photos.  When I called his home, I was told that he’d taken his sick daughter to a doctor in Prome, north of Rangoon.  Misunderstanding the word, I thought this was a feeble excuse.  “Rome” seemed a very long way to take a patient.  Only when I insisted that someone come and pick up the packet did another daughter agree to meet me.  I didn’t discover the reason for their reluctance until I returned to America.  The officer had been elected to parliament with Suu Kyi’s party in 1990 and believed, when the secret police were working overtime, that meeting me would put us both in danger.

The Lady remained blockaded in her car for nine days.  I then lectured on a cruise ship up the monsoon-swollen Irrawaddy, from Mandalay to Katha, the setting of Orwell’s Burmese Days.  After the voyage, I went south by road to Moulmein, the scene of his “Shooting an Elephant.”  When I returned to Rangoon, the Lady had once again been placed under house arrest.  As I drove by, I could see that University Avenue, where she lived, was blocked at both ends.  I left my biography of Orwell, a present for Suu Kyi, and one of her books, which I’d smuggled in under a false cover, with our mutual friend at the embassy and never expected to hear anything more about them.  But she sent word that she liked my Orwell.  Two years later, her book suddenly arrived in California with the poignant inscription: “To Jeffrey Meyers, Hoping to see you again in a happier Burma, Suu Kyi.”  I was most grateful for “again” and deeply moved by her hope for a freer and more prosperous country.

It is hard for Americans, who have the freedom to think as they like and associate with whom they please, to imagine the sacrifice Suu Kyi has made—she was unable to see her husband before he died and had not seen her sons for more than a decade—and the constricted, imprisoned lives of the Burmese.  Orwell suffered agonies of guilt over his role in policing an outpost of empire.  It is cruelly ironic that the Burmese have replaced British colonial rule with an infinitely more brutal government.