I’ve just finished stumbling through Peter Popham's 'The Lady and the Peacock,' a biography of the amazing Aung San Suu Kyi. While the book isn’t spectacular, the story of this woman is incredibly powerful and inspiring.
Her life has so many twists and turns, ups and downs that I struggled to summarize what I had learned thus far at a recent dinner. In short, she is the daughter of Aung San, the would-be George Washington of Burma who is assassinated in July 1947 after negotiating independence from Britain, but before he can set up an independent government (Suu Kyi is 2 years old at the time of his death).
In the ensuing power vacuum a vicious and incompetent military junta takes power (the phrase "monk killers" still sticks out in my mind), and Aung San’s wife is sent off to India to serve as an ambassador with her two sons and daughter, Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi grows up in India and then attends Oxford, eventually marrying an academic named Michael Aris.
In the late ’80s, Suu Kyi returns to Burma to care for her ailing mother but finds herself in a country in revolt. For the next 15 years she engages in an epic struggle against different incarnations of the same military junta as the head of the National League for Democracy (her political party, symbolized by the peacock), spending much of that time under house arrest in her mother’s home in Rangoon while the junta made a dizzying series of false promises about free elections and democracy.
One note on her various times under house arrest: during some of these periods, the Burmese government offered her the chance to leave the country, but she never accepted, fearing that they would cancel her Burmese passport and never let her return to the country. The fact that she technical could leave made the fact that she left her family in England all the more controversial.
As a philosophy major this reminds me most pointedly of Kierkegaard’s comparison of Agamemnon (I think?) and Abraham. To summarize: Both mythical men are forced or commanded to kill their children for a greater good, Agamemnon to save his people, Abraham because God told him to. The key distinction is that Agamemnon’s people understand his sacrifice, while Abraham, who is only hearing this commandment in his head, will have no recourse when “society” asks him why he killed his son. Obviously this isn’t quite Suu Kyi’s situation, but the fact that others see her situation as a choice (to stay and abandon her family vs. leave and never return to Burma) where she’s sees no choice (she must stay for her country) leads me to draw parallels.
She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 but was unable to travel to Sweden to accept it.
(In 2012 there have been numerous signs of an opening up of Burma under President Thein Sein— releasing of political prisoners, easing of sanctions, and such— which led to a visit from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first such visit since the ’50s. After reading the book I understand that smart people should still be suspicious, as such acts of good will have been taken by the government in the past, only to lead to whimsical changing of minds by those in power and a return to a state of fear by violent crackdowns.)
I was lucky enough to visit Burma in June of 2006, shortly after graduating from high school. We visited a monastery in Rangoon, where, as per tradition, monks young and old venture out into the surrounding neighborhoods to beg for food everyday. I watched them line up, in perfect silence, to receive their share of what they had collected that morning, all dressed in their bright saffron robes. I walked barefoot in warm puddles surrounding the Shwedagon Pagoda. I saw the surreal Inle Lake, its town built on stilts in its shallow waters, with factories housing boys my age making machetes with huge hammers, beating white-hot metal into shape. I saw the temples of Bagan, a sight that must have influenced Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book.’
And I saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, which is located on a beautiful park in Rangoon, from 100 yards or so. At the time she was there, under house arrest. I didn’t understand what I was looking at— if I had I surely would have fallen to my knees.
Again, not to go to deeply into specifics, but more and more I see her story really as one of personal relationships, rather calculated political movements. I don’t say that merely because she is a woman and Gandhi, who Popham compares Suu Kyi to frequently, was a man. I think it has more to do with what she’s up against. Both use and advocate nonviolent measures, but, as Popham points out, the British were colonizers strapped for cash, whereas Burma’s military junta had (has?) no problem exploiting its people. The gender questions are difficult, but interesting. One of Popham’s best points is that the history of Burma is full of ifs; what if Suu Kyi’s either of her brother had been at her side in ‘88? (One drowned at a young age, the other wanted nothing to do with the country.)
Anyway, one of my favorite of these relationships touched upon in the book is the one between Suu Kyi and her student bodyguards, who she refers to as “the boys.” The initial protests in the summer of 1988 were led by students. By August, Suu Kyi was holding private meetings in that centrally-located house. It sounds like people just gravitated there, and soon Suu Kyi what take on an almost spiritual place in the minds of the people. People would stay at the house for a few nights, talking about how they might bring democracy to their country.
Eventually a group of male students became her informal bodyguards. She knit for them, cooked for them, and in return, as I imagine or hope, they would rather die than see her harmed. In ‘88, and to a lesser extent later on, the whole party took an extended press tour— essentially an election campaign— of the rough-and-tumble country with poor infrastructure.
One can imagine her missing her children lead her to be more connected with these youths. Perhaps it’s a case of "knight in shining armor" syndrome that draws me to this relationship, but I found myself very envious of Suu Kyi’s “boys.” And more than once they would find themselves protecting Suu Kyi in dangerous situations, including a handful of assassination attempts.
Beyond the “boys,” Suu Kyi relied heavily on friendships to get through the struggles she faced. In one dispatch to a Japanese newspaper she wrote while under house arrest and certainly feeling alone, dated July 8, 1996, she writes of speaking to friends over the phone.
We never talk about anything world shaking, never discuss anything out of the ordinary, we just make conventional inquiries about each other’s health and families and a few light hearted remarks about the current situation. But each unimportant conversation is a solemn confirmation of friendship. I have a friend who, if I happen to be too busy to take the call, leaves a simple message: “Tell her I called.” It is enough to dissolve all the cares of the day.
The story is currently at a happy point, although not quite a happy ending. Aung San Suu Kyi, now 67 years old, finally took her seat in an elected parliament on May 2nd, 2012, despite some reservations. While she is still a popular figure in the country, it seems she still has a lot of work ahead of her. I’ll try to keep up with the news. In the meantime, switching to Murakami.
Further (long) reading:
Need a more recent long read!