Aung San Suu Kyi: behind the image


Aung San Suu Kyi comes to Dublin on Monday. She is Burma’s ‘only hope’, a political icon, and the whole world wants a piece of her. Can this one woman – strong and stubborn but physically fragile and with no experience of government – deliver on such high hopes, asks KATHY SHERIDAN

The tidal wave of joy and adulation surging across the world found expression as far away as Co Carlow, where a small group of Rohingya Muslims, one of three Burmese communities in the State, felt the first stirrings of hope.

“She is our only hope,” a Burmese student living in Ireland, who did not wish to be identified, said. “She is the only one who can bring justice and the rule of law to our community.”

Where some may see green shoots of democracy in Burma, the Burmese student, a grave young man, sees no change. For several days last week, he says, his mother and family, who are still in Burma, came under violent attack from Buddhists and he didn’t hear from them for three days.

Although they have lived there for hundreds of years, the million or so Rohingya people within Burma are treated as illegal immigrants. They require permits in order to marry and to travel to other towns. They are restricted to three children per family and are barred from studying the higher professions, such as medicine and law.

As the words pour out in a torrent, the sense of expectation invested in the slight woman who turns 67 on Tuesday becomes almost oppressive. In the tinderbox of Burma and its population of 55 million, the Rohingya, who are officially stateless, aren’t even numbered among the 135 ethnic groups clamouring for attention after a generation of dictatorship.

“Yes, we’re worried about the expectations on Aung San Suu Kyi as well: very worried,” says the Burmese student. “The majority in Burma are the Buddhist people, and she can’t talk against them . . . If she talks to one side, she might lose support in the 2014 elections. But she is the champion of human rights. She is the one who wants to reconcile all ethnic groups.”

This, then, is the enormous expectation invested in one woman, whose moral strength was never in doubt but whose physical frailty was painfully evident on Thursday in Geneva when, in the middle of a press conference, an assistant had to rush to her side after she was taken ill. During her nationwide election campaign in March, she had to withdraw on several occasions for health reasons, citing exhaustion, hot weather and airsickness.

Despite the steely resolution, the ramrod-straight deportment and the cheerful flowers in her hair, visitors to Rangoon have invariably described her as fragile. It could hardly be otherwise, after 20 years of an emotional and psychological crucifixion, several assassination attempts and 15 years of detention, during which 15 armed soldiers, inside and outside her home, watched her every move.

One by one, every human consolation was taken: her party colleagues, her friends, her children and her husband, according to Peter Popham, author of a masterly biography, The Lady and the Peacock.

She had no telephone because a soldier had severed the cable. When the regime opened one of her parcels and had the contents – a Jane Fonda workout video, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, novels and food in jars and tins – photographed for a newspaper, she refused any further mail. Rather than accept food from the regime, she instructed guards to sell the furniture for food. Her hair fell out for lack of nourishment. Her weight dropped to about six and a half stone, and she developed spondylosis, a degeneration of the spinal column.

She spent the monsoon months moving her bed, bowls, basins and buckets around the bedroom to catch the leaks that soaked her mattress. The roof leaked because her only surviving sibling and eldest brother, Aung San Oo, had filed a court case in 2000, allegedly at the behest of the regime, claiming half the house belonged to him and blocking repairs on the basis that they would “damage” his property. The case dragged on until 2010 when, to general amazement, the courts found in her favour.

Aung San Oo is “strangely absent from Suu’s story”, says Popham. The froideur between them was evident long before her immersion in Burmese politics. Lady Pat Gore-Booth, Suu Kyi’s London-based guardian in her Oxford years, noticed it even then. A charmless individual by all accounts, Aung San Oo studied electrical engineering at Imperial College London, from where, in Popham’s words, “he proceeded to a career and marriage (to a Burmese woman) in the US with speed and dispatch, renouncing his Burmese citizenship in favour of American along the way”.

IN THE SPACE of six years Suu Kyi lost two other siblings at a young age, as well as her father, Aung San. A revered national figure, he was only 30 when he forged Burma’s first army and then, with perfect timing, turned it against Japan, the power that had sponsored it. A patriot with a pragmatic streak, he first looked to the Japanese to help free Burma from British rule until he discovered, to his horror, that he and his army colleagues “had swapped one form of enslavement for another”, writes Popham. On his way to London to negotiate a settlement with the British, he told journalists that he wanted “complete independence”, not dominion status. It is said that Michael Collins was one of his inspirations. In any event, the British were ready to deal.

In the Burmese elections in 1947 his party won 248 of the 255 seats, and Aung San became the pre-eminent leader of the nation.

Three months later, at a cabinet meeting, five men stormed the building and assassinated him, along with most of the council.

Suu Kyi was only two at the time and has never pretended to remember much about him. But she never got over his death, argues Popham. As the daughter of a revered national martyr, she felt marked by destiny.

There was little sign of it, however, when she moved to England to study at Oxford University. The family had been well cared for by the government after Aung San’s assassination. They had been given the gracious old house on University Avenue, and Suu Kyi’s mother, Daw Khin Kyi, had been set on a career in high-profile public service.

When Suu Kyi headed to Oxford in 1964, her mother asked her old friends Sir Paul Gore-Booth and his wife, Lady Pat, to act as her daughter’s guardian; she became almost like a daughter to them. With her elegant carriage, Audrey Hepburn looks and fresh flowers worn daily in her high ponytail, she cut an exotic figure around college. “Every male who met her had a bit of crush on her,” one man told Popham. Yet she retained something of the prim and puritanical postcolonial Victorian, a woman not for turning.

Her years at Oxford seem to have been marked by attempts to change her degree course (her eventual third-class degree, friends suggest, was the result of indifference) as well as an unrequited love for a Pakistani student, which endured for a year or two after college.

While she was trying to plot a course in life, the Gore-Booths’ son Christopher brought his lanky, rumpled friend Michael Aris to their Chelsea home and introduced him to her. Aris, a student of Tibetan language and culture, who was born in Havana to an Englishman and a French-Canadian beauty, was instantly smitten. Then he flew off to tutor the children of the Bhutanese royal family and she got a lowly UN job in New York. They got engaged while he was visiting New York, and the following year she visited him in Bhutan.

In the eight months between that visit and the wedding – a Buddhist ceremony at the Gore-Booths’ home, marked by the absences of her mother and brother – she wrote 187 letters to him.

By any standard these are untypical love letters. In what Popham calls “the mother of all pre-nups”, she makes her conditions very clear in one of them. “I ask only one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them. Would you mind very much should such a situation ever arise? How probable it is I do not know, but the possibility is there.” He accepted without demur. The possibility probably seemed remote.

Her future roles at that stage seemed to be those of being a wife to a gentle scholar, and of being a mother. On the face of it, there was little to distinguish her. As Popham puts it, with stark clarity, she was a woman with a mediocre degree who had done a little part-time tutoring and a little temporary research work, obtained a postgraduate position in New York that she abandoned weeks later, and then used her name and connections to get a semi-menial job in the UN (of which U Thant, the then most famous Burmese person in the world, was secretary general), from which she resigned after three years to get married. “She was that unfortunate creature: a trailing spouse.”

She gave birth to Alexander in 1973, and by the time Kim was born, in 1977, they were back in Oxford in a college flat while Aris studied for his doctorate, living on modest funding. A friend detected “anxiety, cramp and strain” amid Suu Kyi’s bright homemade curtains and Bhutanese rugs. She ironed everything, including Aris’s socks, and was rigorous about home-cooked food.

It was Suu Kyi who gave the textbook children’s parties, but the party-game rules were enforced with unyielding exactitude, to the astonishment of the other children. “To them, Suu was kindly but grave, an uncomfortably absolute figure of justice in their malleable world,” said another mother.

Meanwhile, she returned to Burma most summers, alone or with the family, and took the boys back for shinbyu, the ceremony all Burmese Buddhist boys undergo between the ages of five and 12. She won a scholarship at Kyoto University, in Japan, to study Burma’s independence movement. She took eight-year-old Kim with her – Popham notes that he underwent a very challenging year at school there; Aris took Alexander to the Indian Himalayas while he pursued a fellowship.

IN 1988, WHEN her mother was taken to hospital in Rangoon, Suu Kyi travelled there to nurse her. She encountered an uprising, of which the results were visible in the injuries of some patients. Less than a year later she had her first close encounter with death, during a campaign tour, when soldiers were ordered to shoot her and her colleagues. Her companions stuck to the side of the road, but Suu Kyi walked into the middle, right in the line of fire. Only at the last moment was the order revoked. She recalled that some of the kneeling soldiers were “shaking and muttering to themselves”.

She survived a second serious attempt in 2003, in which 70 of her party colleagues died. To many ordinary Burmese people her ability to survive and face down her enemies suggested she was something of a living Buddha, a divine being, born to save her people from suffering. It was reported that Buddha statues had begun to weep from the left breast – indicating the feminine principle, weeping out of pity – when the regime ignored her party’s landslide victory in 1990.

“I don’t want a personality cult,” she told New York Times journalist Steven Erlanger. “We’ve had enough dictators already.” But there was little she could do about it.

It had taken 15 years, but by now the ferocious prenup promises had taken on a terrible reality. Alexander and Kim, then 16 and 11, were with her in Rangoon when she was first placed under house arrest. When Michael arrived he found his wife on the third day of a hunger strike, her one demand being that she be allowed to visit her young supporters in prison. Only when the regime gave its word did she relent. (Her fears were real. A US embassy cable from the time revealed that political prisoners were tortured with cigarette burns, electric shocks to the genitals and brutal beatings sometimes causing death).

The family had a month together then, before school beckoned back in England. The family were never reunited. This is the question that preoccupies many about Aung San Suu Kyi, and it’s one that would rarely, if ever, be directed at a man in such circumstances. When she effectively renounced her husband and vulnerable young sons, it was, to most eyes, voluntary. How could she do it?

This is what made her long years in detention so exceptional. Unlike Nelson Mandela or Andrei Sakharov, every day she could have walked free, headed for the airport and flown back to her beloved Oxford. “Every day for 15 years,” wrote Polly Toynbee after interviewing her for the Guardian, “she had to make that hard decision to stay, alone and isolated, without her two sons, even as her beloved husband was dying of cancer in Britain, cruelly forbidden from visiting her.”

Over the years her answer has been that she was not the only one; that other Burmese prisoners had suffered far more in far harsher conditions, half-starved, their health destroyed.

When Steven Erlanger asked about her family in 1989, she told him the decision “took a while ” but that when she decided, that was that. “Obviously you have to put the family second. But the kids are at an important age. Really families need to be together all the time.” Then she paused and said, with a tear running down her cheek, “My mother was very ill. It was important to be here with her.”

She told another journalist, Alan Clements, that as a mother “the greater sacrifice was giving up my sons”, but she immediately added, “I was always aware of the fact that others had sacrificed more than me.”

Drawn out a little more by Clements, she said: “When I first entered politics, my family happened to be here with me tending to my mother. So it was not a case of my suddenly leaving them, or they leaving me. It was a more gradual transition which gave us an opportunity to adjust.”

Given that her interviews were always carefully calibrated for the ears of the regime, it is difficult to take these words at face value. For the generals, all this was ammunition; the last thing she wanted to do was show that the slow torture was working. There were hints of deep grief, according to an erstwhile Burmese friend also quoted by Popham, such as when she was mending some of her young supporters’ shirts and it brought her back to Oxford and how she used to sew name tags on her sons’ school shirts. She fell silent, with tears in her eyes, wrote the friend, and said: “I had better concentrate on my new sons.”

What is beyond doubt is Aris’s unwavering support and understanding for her stance. Back in Oxford she had disliked his smoking and complained that he was too easygoing to fulfil his potential and was too tolerant of English social hypocrisy. But when the tests came, writes Popham, “without a blip, he became her other half in the world outside”.

His sister-in-law, Lucinda Aris, told Popham that Aris spent at least half of his time working on Suu Kyi’s behalf and that he had a secretary who worked exclusively on Burmese matters. “I don’t think Suu ever realised how much he did,” she said. When it came to his impending death, he remained as steadfast as ever to her cause, saying, “Don’t come, don’t come.” They shared the decision.

MUCH HAS BEEN made of her alleged stubbornness, inflexibility and refusal to concede the slightest thing in the interests of starting a dialogue, writes Popham. Would it have made a difference had she flown to her husband and children and turned off the lights at 54 University Avenue for good? “The answer is, a great deal of difference,” he says. Suu Kyi’s impact has been spiritual and emotional as much as political.

Even as the regime tried to paint her as a puppet of the West, a poster girl, even as her image was being commandeered to sell cars and light fittings, the bottom line about Suu Kyi and her unwavering place in the hearts of tens of millions of Burmese is that she could have flown away. But she never did.

Although few can know the truth of their own sacrifice, her sons have survived. Alexander, who is now said to live a reclusive life in Oregon, delivered an astonishing speech when he and Kim represented their mother at the Nobel prizegiving. Kim has paid several visits to her in Burma since her 2010 release.

Now, as a member of parliament, Suu Kyi has made the leap from icon to lawmaker. Now she isn’t merely “absorbing the hopes the people are putting on her but she begins to be responsible for making them come true,” Hillary Clinton said. “I know that route. I know how hard it is to balance one’s ideals and aspirations” with the demands of politics.

It is the steadfastness that will get her there, says Popham. And over the next few days it is probably that steadfastness that will get her through the sickness and the maelstrom of adulation, in a world where everyone wants a piece of her.

Over 20 years the woman with a third-class Oxford degree incarcerated in that shabby house on University Avenue has been showered with 66 honorary degrees and 57 international prizes. “Her great gift to her country was to throw open the windows to the outside world,” writes Popham. “At the same time she opened the windows of the world to Burma . . . Burma will never be the same again.”

Electric Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi’s six-hour visit to Ireland – one of five European countries her itinerary – comes on foot of an invitation from the lawyer Bill Shipsey, who founded Amnesty International’s artist-engagement programme. Shipsey arranged for his friend Lucinda Aris, Suu Kyi’s sister-in-law, to go to a U2 concert during which people processed across the stage in Suu Kyi masks, calling for her release.

Shipsey asked Lucinda to “tell her sister-in- law not to forget that she was to come and pick up her Ambassador of Conscience award – and if she comes, I said, we’d put on a concert for her”.With Aris’s encouragement, Amnesty sent an invitation to Suu Kyi with notes from Seamus Heaney and Mary Robinson. She accepted.

Monday’s concert, Electric Burma, at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, will include the presentation by Bono to Aung San Suu Kyi of Amnesty’s Ambassador of Conscience award. Afterwards, outside the theatre, with the Lord Mayor, Andrew Montague, Suu Kyi will sign the roll of honorary freedom and address the public.

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