Brother of Aung San Suu Kyi fights to sell symbolic site of her house arrest

Myanmar leader’s relative launches court bid, saying ‘I already let her live for free for 12 years’

The crumbling lakeside villa that served as Aung San Suu Kyi’s prison for 15 years during her house arrest has become the source of a bitter family dispute between the Myanmar state counsellor and her brother.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s estranged older brother, Aung San Oo, an engineer who lives in the US, has submitted an appeal at the supreme court, petitioning for the auction of the home and a share of the proceeds.

While the two-storey villa has long fallen into disrepair, Aung San Oo’s lawyer said it was valued at $90m (£69m).

The colonial-style house at 54 University Avenue on the shores of Yangon’s Inya Lake has gained revered status. The two-acre strip of land was given by the government to Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother, Khin Kyi, after her husband, the independence hero general Aung San, was assassinated in 1947. Khin Kyi died in 1988, when Aung San Suu Kyi was living in the property and nursing her.

From that point on, for almost two decades, it was the hub of Aung San Suu Kyi’s then-dissident political party, the National League of Democracy (NLD).

The site of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, seen here in 2010.
The site of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, seen here in 2010. Photograph: STR/REUTERS

It became a familiar site on weekend afternoons to see Aung San Suu Kyi climb up on a fence or a rickety table outside the dilapidated house and make speeches promoting free speech and democracy to crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands.

The property, which was once one of Yangon’s most luxury homes, was kept bare, dark and austere by Aung San Suu Kyi during her time living there under house arrest, and she sold most of her parents’ furniture in order to be able to pay for food while she was detained.

In 2012, it was through the gates of this villa that President Barack Obama historically drove through to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, accompanied by then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who rushed to emotionally embrace Aung San Suu Kyi in the driveway. However, she has not lived in the house since her release in 2012.

The legal action is not the first time Aung San Oo has made a claim on the family estate. He first sued Aung San Suu Kyi for the property in 2000, when she was still detained there by the military. The case was initially thrown out by the courts, but he then filed a new suit, claiming joint ownership.

Then US president Barack Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi speak to the media during a brief joint press conference at her house in 2012.
Then US president Barack Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi speak to the media during a brief joint press conference at her house in 2012. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

In 2016, after another dispute, a Yangon court ruled that the Myanmar state counsellor owned the main house, while another building on the property and some of the surrounding land on the belonged to her brother.

However, he is now disputing that ruling as “biased”. “They gave her more than half and so I am not satisfied and I am asking this right now,” Aung San Oo told Reuters. “I already let her live for free for 12 years. There is a limitation.”

Speaking to reporters outside the court where he filed the petition, he added: “The money earned from putting the house and compound up for auction would be divided equally between us.”

He claimed that the building he had been given in the 2016 settlement had “collapsed” and was unliveable, unlike the main villa given to his younger sister.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation as a beacon of democracy and free speech has been severely diminished over the past year in the wake of the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in Rahkine state and the imprisonment of journalists, though in Myanmar she still commands fierce loyalty.

Nyi Nyi, a member of the NLD and of the Yangon regional parliament, said he would raise money to fight Aung San Oo in court.

“This will become a historic place of a leader who fought for democracy and so, as a citizen, although I am not rich, I cannot lose the compound,” he said.


Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Bangkok

The GuardianTramp

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