How confident should she be?

Richard Lloyd Parry

  • The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Peter Popham
    Rider, 446 pp, £20.00, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 84604 248 5

With every week it becomes more and more difficult to hold on to a feeling which has become so instinctive as to be almost consoling: a contemptuous suspicion of the Burmese government, and a refusal to believe anything it claims, proposes or promises. A year ago, Burma’s new president, a former general called Thein Sein, could not have lured any respectable politician to his Ming the Merciless-style parliamentary complex in Naypyidaw, Burma’s bizarre new capital; since last autumn, they have arrived in a steady stream. The prime minister of Thailand, the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Indonesia, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as a throng of aid ministers, senators, congressmen, MPs and diplomats have all called on Thein Sein. Each has returned cautious, but unmistakably impressed. David Cameron, who this week became the most important visitor so far, urged us all to ‘pay tribute … to the leadership of President Thein Sein and his government, which has been prepared to release political prisoners, hold by-elections and legalise political parties’. ‘There is a tremendous appreciation for the leadership of Thein Sein and what he has done here,’ Barack Obama’s state department gofer on Burma, Derek Mitchell, said last month.

Thein Sein became president in March last year, four months after a thuggishly rigged general election, the first since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won overwhelmingly in 1990, only for the result to be ignored by the government. The success with which the latest election was fixed took the edge off what would otherwise have been a moment of promise: six days after the election Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, after seven and a half years of continuous confinement. It seemed at the time less like a breakthrough for the democratic movement than a sign of its impotence: the generals didn’t even need to lock up its leader anymore.

In this atmosphere, the retirement of the ‘senior general’, Than Shwe, and the formal dissolution of the junta which had ruled Burma since 1962, didn’t seem very significant. Than Shwe was a man of cartoonish charmlessness and crudity, and as prime minister, Thein Sein had been his loyal sidekick, the blinking and bespectacled face of the regime at such international gatherings as it was permitted to attend. Like most of his new ministers, he was a general who had only recently stepped out of uniform. Nothing happened in the early months of his notionally civilian government to dispel the sense of stagnation; many Burmese suspected that renewed repression of the NLD, which had rendered itself illegal by refusing to participate in the election, was only a matter of time. In July, Suu Kyi met Aung Kyi, the minister in the new government appointed as her official interlocutor. Neither side has spoken in detail about the meeting, but in August, Suu Kyi made her first working visit outside Rangoon and addressed large crowds, unmolested by the government or its thugs. A few days later, she was invited to meet Thein Sein in Naypyidaw, an encounter that would have been unthinkable under Than Shwe. And over the next few months there was a series of shifts in long established practice, none revolutionary in itself, but cumulatively breathtaking.

The state newspapers suddenly dropped their comically lurid denunciations of the Western media. (‘VOA and BBC airing skyful of lies,’ the New Light of Myanmar used to warn. ‘Beware! Don’t be bought by those slickers.’) Internet users discovered that websites had been unblocked. Newspaper and magazine editors found themselves able to get more and more past the censors, including ever larger photographs of Suu Kyi, whose image on posters, key rings and T-shirts was now sold openly on the streets. The government created a National Human Rights Commission, and the new parliament passed legislation which permitted the formation of labour organisations and granted the right to public protest.

No one outside Burma was prepared for Thein Sein’s announcement in September that, ‘according to the desire of the people’, the construction of the Myitsone dam, a vast and destructive Chinese project in north-east Burma, would be suspended. Then in October two hundred political prisoners were released, followed by 651 more in January, among them Burma’s most famous and long incarcerated dissidents. A festival of independent film took place in Rangoon organised by released prisoners; almost all the films shown were critical of the regime. Among the award winners was Ban That Scene!, a farcical satire on the hypocrisy and corruption of the film censors – who let the whole event go ahead without so much as an advance screening. In the same month, the world’s longest running war, between Burma’s armed forces, the Tatmadaw, and the independence army of the Karen people, was suspended with the signing of the first ceasefire in 65 years. But just as remarkable as the changes announced by the government was the volte-face executed by Suu Kyi and the NLD.

Not only was the NLD reversing its policy of 22 years by accepting the legitimacy of the new constitution and parliament (which reserves a quarter of its seats for the Tatmadaw); and not only was the NLD to take part in this month’s by-elections but Suu Kyi herself was to be a candidate. There has been much analysis of the motives behind Thein Sein’s reforms, but within the constrained world of the opposition movement, the policy revolution initiated by Suu Kyi, and obediently agreed by the NLD executive, has been just as unexpected.

Peter Popham’s life of Aung San Suu Kyi is gripping, partisan and emotional, a welcome complement to the only other serious biography in English, Justin Wintle’s assiduously comprehensive Perfect Hostage. It contains fascinating new material and conveys, better than any other account, the stirring drama of her confrontations with the junta. But perhaps the most interesting thing about it is its timing. It was delivered to the publishers in the summer of 2011, just as Burma’s changes were invisibly getting underway. ‘Her intercourse with the rulers of the country has been almost non-existent,’ Popham writes, ‘and there is little prospect of that changing.’ Between final proofs and publication, everything changed. And yet what might have been fatally bad luck becomes the book’s great strength. The Lady and the Peacock is an essential record of the struggle for democracy in Burma before the mysteries and promise of the Thein Sein era: a reminder of the 49 long years that preceded eight breathless months of reform.

No other leader commands such moral power as Aung San Suu Kyi. She has dominated the Burmese opposition movement for 24 years and for the time being enjoys an effective veto over the Burma policy of the United States and the United Kingdom, which unselfconsciously adopt her views as their own. In November, before announcing Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma, Barack Obama telephoned her to secure her approval. David Cameron did the same before William Hague’s trip; and when I asked a British government official how Hague could be sure that Thein Sein was ‘sincere’, he replied that it was because the ‘the Lady’ thought so.

Unlike Nelson Mandela, she has always rejected armed struggle. Unlike the Dalai Lama, she didn’t flee from persecution. On top of this, she is slim, beautiful, witty, cultured and English-speaking. Her uniform of traditional Burmese blouse and skirt, with a tropical flower in her hair, are, as Popham says, familiar ‘to millions of people around the world who have no idea how to pronounce her name or where to place Burma on the world map’. Her image has been used to sell Chrysler cars (‘Freedom always finds a path’) and Artemide lamps (‘There is light on Earth’). Yet until she was 43, the most remarkable thing about her was her father, Aung San, whose charm, flair, and talent for exquisitely timed changes of side saw him progress from student communist and anti-colonial to Japanese-trained guerrilla, then to British ally and negotiator (with Attlee) of Burma’s independence. When he was gunned down by an embittered rival in 1947, along with his cabinet, Suu Kyi was two and she probably doesn’t remember him.

Her mother, Khin Kyi, was a stern and principled woman who founded the Burmese Girl Guides, and imparted to Suu Kyi her erect carriage and mildly bristly propriety (not only was biscuit-dunking banned, she was not allowed to lick stamps, which were to be wetted with a sponge). Suu Kyi went to the best school in the newly independent country, run by English Methodists, and lived through the last years of what in retrospect came to seem like a golden age for Rangoon, a period of cosmopolitanism, economic opportunity and political freedom. But Burmese politics never recovered from the loss of Aung San. In the early 1960s, the latest in a series of sickly governments was first dominated, then overthrown in a coup by Aung San’s former deputy, General Ne Win, who was soon nationalising industry, stifling the press, expelling foreigners, and shooting protesting students in the name of something called the Burmese Way to Socialism. Khin Kyi, a friend to the deposed democratic government, sidestepped potential awkwardness by accepting privileged exile in Delhi as Burma’s first female ambassador. There the teenage Suu Kyi met the Nehrus, became acquainted with the lives and writings of Tagore and Gandhi, and won a place at Oxford in 1964.

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