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Lady of Yangon

A gripping account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s extraordinary life

Written by Shankar Acharya |
February 25, 2012 3:51:41 am

Book: The Lady And The Peacock: The Life Of Aung Sang Suu Kyi

Author: Peter Popham

Publisher: Rider Books

I picked up this latest biography of Aung San Suu Kyi with some scepticism. There have been several books,and films,about this remarkable lady,including the substantial biography by Justin Wintle in 2007. What was there left to say? Happily,my scepticism was wholly unjustified. Peter Popham has crafted a very fine and sympathetic account,which contains a great deal of new information,analysis and insight.

The basic outline of Suu Kyi’s life is well-known: the daughter of Aung San,the founder of modern Burma (now Myanmar) who was machine-gunned in a cabinet meeting of the provisional government in July 1947 a few months before full independence,Suu spent her early years in Rangoon (now Yangon); then moved to Delhi in 1960 at age 15 when her widowed mother became Burma’s ambassador and Suu spent four years in school and college,followed by three years in England at Oxford for a degree in politics,philosophy and economics; then romance and marriage (1972) to budding Tibet scholar Michael Aris; and the next 15 unremarkable years in Oxford as a don’s wife,rearing two young sons and trying fitfully to resume academic interests.

Then came the fateful return to Rangoon to tend her dying mother in March 1988,when Suu Kyi found herself swept up in the extraordinary tumult of that year as Ne Win’s 26-year-old military rule ended; her charismatic speech at the Shwedagon pagoda on August 26,which made her the natural leader of the democracy movement; the founding of the National League for Democracy (NLD) just before renewed repression ushered in a new military government in September; house arrest in 1989 along with imprisonment of NLD’s top leadership; the elections of 1990 in which the NLD and allies won 94 per cent of the seats,a result ignored and later annulled by the military government; the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and many other honours,which did not alter the terms of her detention until 1995 when she was released,only to be rearrested in 2000,released in 2002,incarcerated again in 2003 and released in November 2010,a week after the new,carefully “managed” elections which the NLD could not contest and were won by the military-sponsored party.

Popham tells the tale with verve and empathy. He does full justice to the most dramatic episodes,such as the Shwedagon speech,Suu Kyi’s legendary facing down of soldiers at Danubyu in April 1989 and the ruthless military-sponsored attack on her convoy at Depayin,100 miles north west of Mandalay,in May 2003,which killed around 70 of her supporters,wounded many and which Suu survived thanks only to luck and the skill of her driver. He also brings new information to bear,for example,the detailed diary accounts of 1988-89 of her lively personal assistant,Ma Thanegi,who accompanied Suu on all her campaign trips,including the one to Danubyu. These diary entries,kept at Aris’s request,reveal much about Suu’s personality and emotions in this first phase of her political involvement: her untiring commitment,her quiet courage and determination in the face of adversity,her fretting over the competing obligations to country and family,and her puckish humour.

Suu Kyi has been accused sometimes of obduracy in dealing with the military government. Popham says she did hold substantive negotiations with the government on the only occasion they were offered,in 2002-04,when the head of military intelligence (MI) and prime minister Khin Nyunt,deputed Brigadier-General Than Tun to conduct the talks. Popham cites senior MI defector Aung Lyn Htut,who obtained asylum in US in 2005,and other “insiders” to support the view that a draft agreement was reached in May 2004 to reengage the NLD in the political process. But it was rejected by the ruling general,Than Shwe,who placed Khin Nyunt under house arrest in two months’ time.

The central conundrum of Suu Kyi’s life is what transformed a charming,dutiful 43-year-old housewife of an English Tibet scholar into an iconic,Mandela-like crusader for democracy and freedom in her homeland for the next 23 years,two-thirds of which were spent in detention? This book provides some pieces of the puzzle: her lineage as daughter of the legendary Aung San; the accident of timing,which took her back to Rangoon in 1988 when the country was in unprecedented ferment; her long-held belief that if her country called,she had to answer (in a 1971 letter to her betrothed,Michael,she wrote “ I only ask one thing,that should my people need me,you would help me to do my duty by them”); her innate courage,commitment and charisma,which swept her into natural leadership of the democracy movement and kept her there; her Buddhist principles and outlook,honed by years of meditation in house arrest; her commitment to non-violence (it is no accident that Gandhi’s favourite Tagore poem-song,“If they answer not your call,walk alone…” was also hers); and perhaps,above all,her enduring bond with the people of her land.

The book has a couple of flaws. There is perhaps a little too much of the “Beauty vs Beast” syndrome. Suu is undoubtedly beautiful and the military government was often beastly. But to dismiss the reforms of the last 15 months in terms of “fake elections and fake parliament” seems unduly harsh. After all,Suu Kyi herself is campaigning for by-election seats in the same parliament. Second,the book sheds little light on the impact of evolving geopolitics on the Myanmar’s polity. What was the impact of Western sanctions or Asian “constructive engagement”? Did China’s tightening economic and political embrace spur the government to reengage with the West and others?

Bottom line: Read this gripping account about the extraordinary life of an exceptional person who has changed Myanmar forever.

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