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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 1, 2007
Lodestar of liberty
Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Justin Wintle

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

One of the 10 least developed countries of the world, Myanmar is a land where atrocity has found its consummation. Since a coup d'etat in 1962, a military dictatorship has been brutalizing ethnic minorities and the majority Burman community. In this ghastly dystopia, the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi shines as a savior. Historian Justin Wintle's rounded biography of the best-known prisoner of conscience alive is her story encased in that of the Burmese people at large.

Harmony among Myanmar's ethnic components has never lasted very long. For anyone wanting to control the whole of Myanmar (or Burma as it was known before the current junta changed its name in 1989), the fiercely independent minorities present an enduring challenge. The montagnards bear a historic grudge against their Burman counterparts who often rode roughshod over them.

Even Suu Kyi's father, the arch-patriot Aung San, could not persuade all the minorities to come unambiguously under one umbrella. Keenly aware of Burma's fragmentation, he championed inclusiveness and promised cultural autonomy to the tribes.

After World War II, he initiated covert discussions with minority leaders for an independent country in which all nationalities would enjoy equal rights. Suu Kyi's mother, Khin Kyi, accompanied Aung San on his upcountry trips and helped in some of these dealings. Ultimately, Aung San failed to persuade the Karenni and a section of the Karen to join the Union of Burma. The Shan, Chin and Kachin agreed only conditionally.

Aung San's shock assassination in 1947 by a political rival removed "the one man capable of knocking sense into antagonistic, warring heads" (p 149). Apart from his moral inspiration, Suu Kyi's character was also molded by Khin Kyi's 20-year career in public service after becoming a widow. Her mother furnished Suu Kyi with a model of selflessness.

Wintle sketches the young Suu Kyi as an above-average, bookish, "diminutive, impeccably turned-out word-guzzler" (p 156) who did well at private school. Thanks to her elite pedigree, she learned as a child to comport herself before Myanmar's who's who, including representatives of the increasingly threatened minorities.

In 1960, 15-year-old Suu Kyi went to India, where her mother had been appointed Burmese ambassador. While studying at Lady Shri Ram College, the politics and philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi "became embedded in her slowly evolving mindset" (p 165). Under the influence of Buddhist mentors, contemplation and a knack for remaining unperturbed by the severest setbacks entered her mental armory.

In 1964, Suu Kyi moved to Oxford's St Hugh's College, impressing peers with grace and purity but securing only a third division (class) in examinations. On finishing in 1967, with the Ne Win autocracy at the helm in Burma, she had no reason to go home. In 1969, she joined the staff of the United Nations in New York, counting U Thant, the Burmese secretary general, as one of her "uncles". The Ne Win regime tried to sound out her long-term intentions and intimidate her at this time, but she held her ground with firmness.

In 1972, Suu Kyi married English Tibetologist Michael Aris, an act denounced by Ne Win's xenophobic mouthpieces as the ultimate apostasy for a Buddhist. Early on, Suu Kyi sought from Aris an understanding that if duty called her to Burma, "he would not stand in her way" (p 208). For the first 15 years of married life, she kept house, bore children, and avoided contact with Burmese dissidents living as emigres. She even soft-pedaled any condemnation of Ne Win and gave no hint of getting directly involved in Burmese politics.

Accepted into a PhD program in Burmese literature in London, Suu Kyi appeared trapped in the cobwebs of academia until a thunderbolt struck in 1988. When she went to attend to her ailing mother in Rangoon (now Yangon), it suddenly dawned that "Aung San's ghost had to be appeased" (p 221). Incessant military rule had produced nothing but insurgencies, refugee exoduses, slave labor, opium booms, and poverty. The government had failed to bind together even the kernel ethnic-Burman population.

Suu Kyi's arrival coincided with grave unrest across the country and terrifying massacres of students. These were "the ugliest assaults yet experienced on her core sensibility" (p 247). Among the victims, activists, and retired senior military men who met her during the turmoil, few doubted that she was a "people person" with intrinsic strengths. The pressure on her to take a stand and lead the democracy movement was unrelenting.

On the eve of her first major public address, notwithstanding regime-planted rumors of her assassination, "she was characteristically debonair about any threat to her well-being" (p 263). The audience was surprised at her maturity, thinking it reminiscent of Aung San. "Father and daughter were cut from the same cloth" (p 264).

Sensitive to charges that she was an "outsider" who had recently entered the fray, Suu Kyi still hesitated to adopt a more active role. While finding her way politically, she dealt with the press impressively and handled any question with "the right balance between self-assurance and humility" (p 278).

Hour by hour, she metamorphosed into Myanmar's principal opposition symbol and potential enemy of the state. When soldiers surrounded her compound in September 1988, she was adamant that no violence should be offered even in self-defense. Wintle comments that "it was Burma's historic culture of violence that she wished to dismantle" (p283).

When the deluded junta led by General Saw Maung announced elections, it did not reckon with the tenacity of Suu Kyi, who helped to found the National League for Democracy (NLD). The new party was open to Burmans as well as all the minorities. The NLD's manifesto vowed to grant minorities "self-determination in accordance with the law".

On the campaign trail, Suu Kyi related quickly and compellingly to virtually everyone, emphasizing continuity between democracy and Buddhism and wearing appropriate ethnic dress in front of minority voters.

Suu Kyi's younger associates recalled that whenever emotions started getting the better of her, she would take time out to play Mozart or Bach on the piano to restore her sangfroid and self-discipline. A tense standoff with the Burmese army at Danubyu in April 1989 "opened her eyes to the depths of her own fortitude and courage" (p 315).

Partly because of Suu Kyi's protestations against endemic torture and disappearances, Burma became a fixture on the international human-rights circuit. The army's bullying tactics turned the NLD's election canvassing into a major civil-rights movement. The propaganda hacks of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) stooped to dirty depths to discredit Suu Kyi, all to no avail.

In July 1989, she was placed under house arrest for a "minimum of one year". Promptly, she embarked on a hunger strike to demand that she be taken to prison, where her NLD colleagues languished. It was broken after 12 days when the cagey junta vowed it would treat political prisoners "more leniently".

When the NLD captured more than 80% of the seats in the 1990 polls, SLORC responded as though there had been no election and jailed NLD members of Parliament (MPs) with a vengeance. Isolated, Suu Kyi had to learn about these events from the British Broadcasting Corp. In tightly restricted indefinite confinement, Buddhism was both a solace and a way of enriching her intellect. She practiced metta (loving kindness) toward her captor guards, much to the disquiet of their officers. "The men had to be replaced, and then replaced again" (p 349).

In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and the Nobel Peace Prize. Scores more accolades followed, elevating her to global iconic status. Wintle quips that "in the perennial search for the ultimate embodiment of human goodness, she has been seized upon" (p 355).

Whenever the junta dangled conditional freedom to Suu Kyi, she insisted that there was no question of her leaving Myanmar. In 1995, reportedly under Japanese pressure, SLORC terminated her arbitrarily prolonged term of sentence. However, the junta decreed that she was not free to travel anywhere she pleased. Cornered, Suu Kyi came up with a new extraordinary weekly fixture of "gate-side" rallies to crowds swelling outside her residence in Yangon. By this stage, she took on the mantle of the nation's teacher, having "found the common touch and thriving upon it" (p 372).

Nothing the junta did - harassment, physical attack or cutting communication links with minority leaders - dented Suu Kyi's resolution. In 1999, the newfangled State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) denied Aris, who was dying of cancer, a visa to pay Suu Kyi a final visit. Wintle proffers a correction to Suu Kyi's image as a self-serving politician who sacrificed family on the altar of ambition. She was actually in "considerable distress" over Aris's illness and decided not to go to England to be with him after weighing the agonizing costs of exiting Myanmar.

In widowhood, Suu Kyi gave her all to the cause with unwavering constancy. Explicit threats to life only goaded her into greater action in the war of endurance against the SPDC. In late 2000, spurning a chorus of international disapproval, General Than Shwe put her again under house arrest. Barred from seeing her sons, she endured the second spell of detention with the same gallantry as the first.

In 2002, Suu Kyi was discharged again through the intervention of the UN's special envoy. Though the SPDC's door for talks remained shut, "defeat remained a stranger to her vocabulary" (p 406). At 58, she "seemed to have twice the energy of supporters half her age" (p 409). Regime-orchestrated ugly episodes did not deter her from entering the minority heartlands and attracting tens of thousands of people.

A savage nightly ambush by 2,000 SPDC ruffians on her convoy at Depayin nearly killed her, but for the alertness of her NLD minders. Her whereabouts were alarmingly unknown for the next 10 days until it was confirmed that she was lodged in the infamous Insein jail.

Thrown back into house arrest in September 2003, Suu Kyi remains there in fading health. By maintaining the tantalizing prospect of her possible release, the junta shrewdly bargains with the outside world. Myanmar is sinking deeper and deeper into the mire, with many NLD MPs either quitting politics or defecting to the regime's side. Non-Burmans stay ever wary that if Suu Kyi died, the NLD could "Burmanize" and impose its own brand of majoritarianism.

Aung San Suu Kyi has not mended all Myanmar's woes and may not be able to if she ever comes to power. The significance of her tragic but exemplary life lies in the more eternal motto, "Never give up."

Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Justin Wintle. Hutchinson, London, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-091-79651-8. Price: US$18, 450 pages.

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