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The Force of a Woman

The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi
By Peter Popham
(The Experiment, 448 pp., $27.50)

Aung San Suu Kyi mania is sweeping Rangoon. The paraphernalia for sale on the streets of Rangoon now includes the hitherto banned image of Aung San Suu Kyi on posters, stickers, key rings, and baseball caps. At one store, staff are hurriedly screen-printing new t-shirts with line drawings of her face while hundreds of freshly stamped flags bearing the peacock and star logo of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), are being hung up to dry—the shop owner is expecting a rush on sales after the NLD’s landslide victory in Burma’s by-elections earlier this month. The party won forty-three out of the forty-four seats it contested, and even snatched up all four seats available in the new capital and government stronghold of Naypyitaw. It was a staggering victory, and most people I spoke to in Rangoon attributed it to the powerful allure of the party’s world-famous chairperson, Aung San Suu Kyi.

There are many extraordinary things about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, and one of the most extraordinary among them is that her popularity within Burma has endured despite every attempt by the Burmese military dictatorship to silence and marginalize her over the past two decades. Also no less extraordinary is that her involvement in Burma’s politics happened through a fluke of timing. Aung San Suu Kyi left Burma as a teenager and ended up living in Oxford with her British husband and their two young sons. She is remembered there as a dutiful housewife who produced home-cooked meals every day, ironed her husband’s socks, and sewed her own curtains and clothes. Then, one evening in March 1988, as she and her husband sat on their sofa reading, a phone call came that would alter her life irrevocably. Her mother, who lived in Rangoon, in faraway Burma, had suffered a stroke. Aung San Suu Kyi left for Burma the next day. Little did she know that she might never return to her home in England.

For Burma, 1988 was a pivotal year. Aung San Suu Kyi arrived in a country in the midst of intense political turmoil. The previous year, kyat notes had been demonetized on a whim of the dictator, General Ne Win, and people’s hard-earned savings were wiped out overnight. The country later accepted “least-developed nation” status from the United Nations, confirming that twenty-six years of military dictatorship had turned a country rich in natural resources into one of the poorest in the world. Student-led uprisings erupted across the country and were met by bloody crackdowns. The final death toll was estimated to be more than three thousand.

Had her mother not survived the initial stroke or died shortly afterward, Aung San Suu Kyi might have simply attended the funeral and gone back to Oxford. But her mother lived on until the end of that convulsed year, thereby ensuring that Aung San Suu Kyi stayed in Burma to nurse her. Being in the country at such a time placed her at the center of events: she is the daughter of the much-lauded national hero, General Aung San, who is considered to be the founding father of the Burmese army and the leader of Burma’s independence struggle against British colonial rule. Aung San was assassinated in 1947 when Aung San Suu Kyi was only two years old, but his life looms over his daughter’s with a ferocious intensity.

It was her father’s name that drew the crowds when Aung San Suu Kyi eventually agreed to step into the public arena and give her first political speeches. Over half a million people turned up for a now legendary speech on August 26, 1988, beneath the Shwedagon Pagoda, where her father had given numerous rousing calls to action against the colonial oppressors. At that event she stood beneath a stylized portrait of General Aung San, emphasizing their striking physical similarity: she has her father’s high cheekbones and fiercely engaging charisma. “I could not as my father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on,” she shouted into the assembled microphones. “This national crisis could in fact be called the second struggle for national independence.”

Burmese history and folklore is punctuated by millennial leaders and would-be kings who emerge at times of crisis to lead the people to safety. Here, in this modern era, a female version had appeared, seemingly by pure chance, during a catastrophic upheaval. Though many could barely hear Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech that day, the crowd was instantly smitten.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s fast-growing reputation as the rightful leader of a brave new Burma was further cemented by her facedown with soldiers the following year. Shaken by nationwide protests, the regime had agreed to hold a general election, and Aung San Suu Kyi was campaigning with members of her newly founded party, the NLD. Her entourage traveled to Danubyu, a small town in the Irrawaddy Delta to the west of Rangoon, and were met there by a troop of soldiers blocking the road and threatening to shoot. She calmly continued to walk through the ranks of bristling and startled soldiers, emerging unharmed on the other side. Word spread quickly about how this petite, unarmed woman had emasculated the regime’s soldiers, and her legend grew exponentially within Burma and around the world.

Her dramatic transformation from housewife to political hero may have happened at a dizzying pace, but Aung San Suu Kyi seemed to bear it with stoicism and aplomb. She told a journalist at the time, “It’s very different from living in academia in Oxford. We called someone vicious in a review for the Times Literary Supplement. We didn’t know what vicious was.” But less than a year after she publicly engaged in politics, it was all over. Hundreds of NLD members were imprisoned, and in July 1989 Aung San Suu Kyi herself was placed under house arrest. The NLD still managed to achieve an overwhelming victory in the elections the following year (winning 392 out of 485 seats), but the regime simply ignored the results and continued to rule.

Yet those who thought that Aung San Suu Kyi’s dazzling political debut had come to naught were to be proved spectacularly wrong. Over the past two decades, she has languished for a total of fifteen years under house arrest, but her global fame continued to grow. The many prestigious awards she has received include the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for human rights, the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Congressional Gold Medal.

IN THE LATEST, and very timely, biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, Peter Popham ably chronicles the incredible story of her life. Aung San Suu Kyi has always been famously tight-lipped about personal details, and what distinguishes Popham’s book from previous biographies are the insights that he has gleaned from the unpublished diaries of Ma Thanegi, a Burmese writer and artist who became Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal aide during the lead-up to the elections of 1990. Through Ma Thanegi’s close gaze we are granted a more human view of Aung San Suu Kyi. She is, we learn, a woman who can merrily belt out the old 1950s hit “Love You More Than I Can Say” and who plays the board game Monopoly with such ferocity that she and her husband agreed to stop playing together to prevent any serious quarrels.

It is perhaps not surprising that Aung San Suu Kyi often refuses to discuss her family; her life has been heavily defined by separation and loss. Her choice to lead the fight for democracy in Burma meant that she was not there to raise her sons through their teenage years (her eldest son has yet to visit her after her release in 2010). When she learned that her husband had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1999, the regime refused to grant him a visa to visit her and she knew that if she went to see him in England she would not be allowed back into Burma again. As a result, the couple was never able to say their final goodbyes.

Neither does Aung San Suu Kyi’s childhood home come across as a happy place. Six years after her father was assassinated, one of her two brothers drowned in the pond at the bottom of the garden. She had been very close to him and often mentioned him to Ma Thanegi, wishing he was still around and musing that he would have made a great leader: “What we could have done together.” In later life Aung San Suu Kyi became estranged from her surviving eldest brother, Aung San Oo, who now resides in San Diego. Their rift is such that he once attempted to sue her for his half of the family property, the very house in which she was serving out her house arrest.

In many ways Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be a woman haunted by ghosts. Pre-eminent among them is that of her father. Her close friends at the school she attended when she lived with her mother in New Delhi as a teenager remember her repeatedly saying, “I will never be allowed to forget whose daughter I am.” Her mother kept a white scarf stained with dried blood from his assassination. When Ma Thanegi was shown this almost holy relic, she was overwhelmed. “I was trembling, with tears in my eyes, to be touching the blood of our martyr, our hero, our god.”

As Aung San Suu Kyi has consciously or subconsciously channeled the spirit and the legend of her dead father, so the media has latched onto the aura of saintliness that surrounds her. In support for the worthiness of her cause, Western journalists have tended to refrain from serious scrutiny or analysis of her or her party. It is a phenomenon meticulously dissected by German scholar Hans-Bernd Zöllner in his upcoming book, The Beast and the Beauty. While Aung San Suu Kyi’s poise and enduring presence help to draw international media attention to Burma, the spotlight that shines relentlessly on her has distorted our perception of that country by evoking a fairytale narrative of the beauty (Aung San Suu Kyi) and the beast (the Burmese generals).

POPHAM’S WRITING OCCASIONALLY succumbs to this inspiring but overly simplistic narrative. Aung San Suu Kyi is described as “radiant as a lily,” “sylph-like,” a “delicate young Burmese lady,” or a “Burmese Audrey Hepburn.” The various generals she stands against are “blubbery lipped,” “fanatic,” “mediocre,” and characterized by “stupidity.” Since the moral equation is weighted so heavily in favor of Aung San Suu Kyi, these are easy stereotypes to assume when writing about Burma. (I have occasionally succumbed to them myself.) Increasingly, however, I am realizing that our willingness to subscribe to this limiting discourse comes at the expense of the many other stories waiting to be told about Burma. It also inhibits any sophisticated understanding of who the generals really are—a regime that managed to stay in power for nearly half a century is certainly not afflicted by “stupidity.”

When Cyclone Nargis struck Burma in 2008 and the ruling generals bluntly refused offers of aid from foreign governments and aid agencies, the West was utterly stumped as to how to negotiate with them. It was not until weeks later, when an intermediary working group was formed among Asian governments within ASEAN, that foreign aid was allowed to reach the affected areas. Such events demonstrate, at tragic cost, how little we know the Burmese generals. This lack of comprehension may be caused by their self-imposed inaccessibility and by the isolationist policies of the West, but it is fueled also by simplistic media caricatures that render the beasts of Naypyitaw ultimately unknowable.

In the fairytale, of course, Beauty marries the Beast and through her love he is transformed into a handsome prince. According to Zöllner’s analysis, this analogy does not play out so well in Burma’s current circumstances. The black-and-white interpretations to which much of the mainstream media subscribes leave no room for sympathy or understanding between the two extremes of good and evil. “Redemption and reconciliation are precluded,” he writes.

Given the events of recent months, however, this well-churned narrative could be about to change. In November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her latest seven-year stint under house arrest. Since then, both she and the newly installed government (led by retired generals who gave up their military ranks to become politicians) have accepted concessions that enabled the NLD to take part in this month’s by-election. Though the party was victorious, its position is still extremely curtailed. The NLD will represent less than 7 percent of a parliament in which a quarter of the seats are held by handpicked members of the military. In this precarious period of transition, it has become more important than ever to try and comprehend the motivations of the men who rule Burma as well as those of other political stakeholders within the country.

Few analysts doubt that the key to Burma’s future depends on finding a sustainable resolution to the plight of the country’s ethnic minorities. For more than sixty years, the Burmese state has been engaged in a series of civil wars against ethnic armies fighting for increased autonomy or full independence from Burma. Most Burmese generals have built their careers on ethnic battlefields, and unifying the country at any cost has been the military’s rallying cause. While more than ten ethnic armies have agreed to ceasefires over recent months, the laying down of arms is not enough to guarantee a peaceful settlement—last year the Kachin Independence Organization broke a seventeen-year ceasefire, re-igniting war in that northern state.

There are plenty of others in the drama of Burmese democratization who deserve more international recognition. The 88 Generation Students Group, formed by leaders from the 1988 uprising who have spent most of the intervening years in prison, chose not to participate in the recent elections, but it is nonetheless becoming a dynamic and alternative political force. It is also worth remembering that the NLD itself is not a cohesive unit: a group of NLD politicians mutinied in 2010 and formed a new party, the National Democratic Front. And neither are the generals themselves so easy to classify, as they are currently divided by varying degrees of allegiance to reformist or hard-liner views. Despite the prevailing perception, then, the Burmese political landscape is broad and deeply nuanced.

With Aung San Suu Kyi now poised to become a member of parliament in Naypyitaw, she may have to relinquish to some extent her halo and special status as an iconic figurehead. When she enters the daily fray of politics, the media’s unspoken promise of solidarity will surely be revoked. In the months to come, we should look forward to coverage on Burma that expands beyond the story of a single remarkable woman and begins to uncover the many shades of gray that lie in between the extremes of the beauty and the beast.

Emma Larkin is the pseudonym for a journalist based in Bangkok. She is the author of Finding George Orwell and No Bad News for the King. This article appeared in the May 24, 2012 issue of the magazine.